Spirituality

Pub Theology on PBS!

Pub Theology on PBS!

This weekend, the PBS show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly will feature a segment on groups gathering in pubs to talk about God and faith. One group highlighted will be Kyrie Pub Church, a community in Fort Worth Texas that has worship services in a pub. The other featured group will be a Pub Theology gathering I facilitated in Washington, DC. The story, as I understand it, is about people seeking non-traditional forms of community and faith outside the church walls—at the bar. Continue Reading..

To See Beyond All Things

Sunrise in March. Photo by Jon Lubbers
Sunrise in March. Photo by Jon Lubbers

Excerpts on Enlightenment from Joan Chittister. Selections from “Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light.”

Amma Syncletica said: “In the beginning, there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.”

Enlightenment is the ability to see beyond all things we make God to find God. We make religion God and so fail to see godliness where religion is not, though goodness is clear and constant in the simplest of people, in the remotest of places. We make national honor God and fail to see the presence of God in other nations. We make personal security God and fail to see God in the bleak and barren dimensions of life. We make our own human color the color of God and fail to see God in the one who comes in different guise. We give God gender and miss the spirit of God in everyone. We separate spirit and matter as if they were two different things, though we know now from quantum physics that matter is simply fields of force made dense by the spirit of Energy. We are one with the Universe, in other words. We are not separate or different from it. We are not above it. We are in it, all of us and everything, swimming in an energy that is God. To be enlightened is to see behind the forms to the God who holds them in being.

Enlightenment sees, too, beyond the shapes and icons that intend to personalize God to the God that is too personal, too encompassing, to be any one shape or form or name. Enlightenment takes us beyond our parochialisms to the presence of God everywhere, in everyone, in the universe.

To be enlightened is to be in touch with the God within and around us more than it is to be engulfed in any single way, any one manifestation, any specific denominational or nationalistic construct, however good and well-intentioned it may be.

The important thing to remember in the spiritual life is that religion is a means, not an end. When we stop at the level of the rules and the laws, the doctrines and the dogmas—good guides as these may be—and call those things the spiritual life, we have stopped far short of the meaning of life, the call of the divine, the fullness of the self.

To be contemplative I must put down my notions of separateness from God and let God speak to me through everything that seeps through the universe into the pores of my minuscule little life. Then I will find myself, as Abbess Syncletica promises, at the flash point of the divine fire.


Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, is founder and Executive Director of BENEVISION: A Resource Center for Contemporary Spirituality. Her many bestselling books include The Gift of Years, The Ten Commandments, A Passion for Life, and There Is a Season.

I Salute Humanity

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“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Along those lines, I read this great piece from the spiritual teacher and mystic Anthony de Mello today. It seems a fitting thing to share today, a tribute to Dr. King’s vision and work. He writes in his book Awareness:

“For instance, I’m an Indian. Now, let’s suppose that I’m a prisoner of war in Pakistan, and they say to me, “Well, today we’re going to take you to the frontier, and you’re going to take a look at your country.” So they bring me to the frontier, and I look across the border, and I think, “Oh, my country, my beautiful country. I see villages and trees and hills. This is my own, my native land!” After a while one of the guards says, “Excuse me, we’ve made a mistake here. We have to move up another ten miles.” What was I reacting to? Nothing. I kept focusing on a word, India. But trees are not India; trees are trees. In fact, there are no frontiers or boundaries. They were put there by the human mind; generally by stupid, avaricious politicians. My country was one country once upon a time; it’s four now. If we don’t watch out it might be six. Then we’ll have six flags, six armies. That’s why you’ll never catch me saluting a flag. I abhor all national flags because they are idols. What are we saluting? I salute humanity, not a flag with an army around it.”

Amen. May we all rise above the narrow confines of our varied nationalistic concerns so that we care equally for the broader concerns of all humanity. Until then, per Dr. King, perhaps we aren’t really living.

To Explain God as Unexplainable

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A winding, uncertain path

“Quia de deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quid non sit, non possumus considerare de deo, quomodo sit sed quomodo non sit.”

This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ introduction to his whole Summa Theologica: “Since we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not, we cannot consider how God is but only how He is not.”

At different points in my life, I’ve been pretty sure that we can know exactly who and what God is. We could define him quite precisely. We could come up with a list of attributes. We could name a bunch of names written in an old dusty language: “Jehovah Jireh,” “Adonai,” or “Yahweh.” Of course, we had only a vague idea what those words meant, yet we felt quite confident using them. We pulled out the good book and felt we had not just a good handle, but a definite handle on who God was and what he was like.

Yet the further I travel on the road of faith, the more I learn about the divine mysteries, the more I realize it is just that: mystery.

Anthony de Mello recounts how the great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, “You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?” Rahner said to him, “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.” And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, “The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.”

De Mello concludes: “Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, “Ah, ah…” That is what is ultimate in our human knowledge of God, to know that we do not know.”

It is a strange comfort, this unknowing. It is threatening, to be sure. But also comforting.

This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us, notes de Mello: “Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word “God,” the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, “The ass that you mount and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.” You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts.”

To know reality, de Mello states, you have to know beyond knowing.

Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he stated in Mark 10:15: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We must become as little children. Because children are in a place of wonder, and see things afresh. We see things and think we know. And sometimes, our knowing is what gets in the way.

CANA Initiative Recap

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (Nov 21) — Had a great week this week joining other instigators at the CANA Initiative gathering, which happened here in Washington, DC.

It was a few days of brainstorming over what might come out of a network of networks bringing a range of people together who are ready to dream about, live into and experience a new kind of faith. A collaboration of collaborators—each seeking to make this world a better place—driven by the dreams of the prophets and Jesus and filled with a longing for the kingdom of God.

As Philip Clayton put it, sometimes you have to kick up the dust to see where the wind is blowing.  Much dust was kicked up, including vital challenges from Anthony Smith and others on the need to expand the diversity present in the conversation from the outset (see his initial response here).

RELATED: Brief Report: CANA Initiators Gathering

What in the world is CANA? Glad you asked. Here’s a synopsis that was created to capture some of the ethos:

CANA is a collective of Christian leaders, organizations and networks across the United States who collaborate to embody and act on a courageous, liberating and compassionate faith.

What do we love and what do we hope?

–        To follow the movement of the Spirit by seeking reconciliation with God, our neighbors, and the earth; by making a fierce and constant commitment to God’s justice; and by nourishing generous Christian communities that unapologetically proclaim and seek God’s kingdom in their shared life and in the world.

–        To connect around a liberating moral vision for America and do more together than we could ever dream alone.

–        To participate in God’s reign of love breaking in everywhere and in everyone.

What will we do?

Broadly, we will engage in constructive, collective action. Specifically, we will …

–        CONNECT groups and institutions that share common loves and common hopes, gathering a network of networks that embody a positive, progressive, courageous, and compassionate Christian ethos.

–        ADVOCATE for this new ethos by engaging in passionate, constructive and civil conversation with the wider public and within broader religious, civic and educational structures.

–        NOURISH those who embody this ethos by creating diverse communities of encouragement and accountability; networked structures that are sustainable and expandable; and a sustainable financial base.

–        ACT by identifying shared priorities and issues, collaborating across denominations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and organizational specializations for the sake of the common good.

A few more thoughts from the CANA website:
The CANA Initiative participants share a sense of exploration, creativity, challenge and opportunity in this pivotal and dynamic moment. Because we are rooted in a generous Christian heritage, we are eager to collaborate with people of other faiths, and those seeking the common good. Our networks of dialogue and action thus extend beyond Christian communities to persons of all faiths, as well as to communities that are not themselves faith-based. We welcome allies and allegiances wherever we find common cause.

The CANA Initiative seeks to translate critical thinking about the past and present into creative collective action for the future, and to do so in a spirit that is positive, irenic, sympathetic, and generous. We welcome people from a wide spectrum of theological, political, and ethnic traditions. We encourage a wide range of ecclesial structures. The CANA Initiative sees this diversity as a sign of health and vitality.

Along the way, we were blessed with much poetry from friend Gary Paterson from the United Church of Canada, including this gem from Boris Novak, Croatian poet:

Decisions
by Boris Novak (tr. Dintinjana)

Between two words
choose the quieter one.

Between word and silence
choose listening.

Between two books
choose the dustier one.

Between the earth and the sky
choose a bird.

Between two animals
choose the one who needs you more.

Between two children
choose both.

Between the lesser and the bigger evil
choose neither.

Between hope and despair
choose hope:
it will be harder to bear.

The events began Tuesday evening with dinner in the home of the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, Gary Hall. He and his wife were delightful hosts as we began to reconnect with familiar faces and quickly met some new ones. Since it was happening in our town, we invited a few house guests to stay with us, coming from places like LA, Denver, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere. Left over wine and desserts were brought to our house Wednesday night as a vibrant after-party kept the good conversations going. It was a rich few days of thinking, collaborating, networking, discovering, and dreaming. Looking forward to seeing where things lead!


Were you at CANA this week? Would love you to include a line or two of your experience—hopes, dreams, cautions—below.

UPDATE: Here’s one from my partner in crime, Christy:
That moment on your life path when you come to a deep level of knowing —knowing you are not alone, but are walking with many others to a similar rhythm that somehow transcends categories, understanding and language. And you want to pause. And listen. And grow into the pulse of it.

So grateful for a few days of stumbling around and processing with all the inspiring initiators of the CANA Initiative!

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

This post originally appeared in HuffPost Religion as “Pub Theology Is a Waste of Time”.

You’ve read, perhaps, about churches making use of beer to gain traction in connecting with people. NPR put it more starkly in a story recently: “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer.” But you’re skeptical. And I don’t blame you. It sounds like a gimmick. Trying to be trendy. Throwing a few jokes into a stale sermon to appear witty, humorous, relevant. Young. People increasingly like beer. People increasingly don’t like church. So it makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t blame churches for trying.

pubtheology waste of time_FI have my own experience connecting beer and faith. I help facilitate pub theology gatherings every week. Pub theology is simply open conversation over a pint. You’re still skeptical. “So, you go the pub to drink beer,” you might say. “Great. Some of us are actually spending time doing things that matter. Helping the poor, working on housing and jobs, advocating for justice, mentoring people and more. Going to the pub to talk about faith seems like it increases what we don’t need any more of: talk. Why do we need more talk? More hot air does not make the world a better place.” You might conclude: “Pub theology is a waste of time.”

–Related: Bar theology: Burgers, beer, and a side of spirituality in D.C. (Washington Post)–

I’ve heard some criticism along these lines, and I’ve had some of these thoughts myself. Pub theology — gathering with folks to talk about life over beer — is nice. But isn’t it time to start doing some things that really matter? Isn’t it just dressing up a relic without really changing anything?

I wonder, though, if there isn’t a small flaw or two in this line of questioning: it assumes that pub theology is the only thing one is doing. Or that one is doing it as a gimmick to attract new church members. Neither of those things is true. Pub theology is not the newest trendy outreach effort. It is open, honest conversation, wherever that leads. It may lead someone to your church. It may also lead someone out of it. Now if you’re a regular reader of mine or follow me on social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that pub theology is all I do. If it was, I think I’d be in heaven already. But that’s for another discussion!

So I hear these legitimate questions and critiques and occasionally wonder to myself: maybe pub theology isn’t so worthwhile. Maybe I need to find something else to do on Tuesday nights.

And then we have an evening in which a Buddhist sits across from an atheist, and a liberal Lutheran sits across from a conservative evangelical. A member of a Unity church pulls up a chair. And the discussion is rich, full, and meaningful. We talk about issues of justice, evil, and whether or not an all-powerful God is culpable for the bad things that happen in the world. Some share stories of hope and powerful religious experience, while others talk about why the church is no longer the place for them, and still others say they’ve abandoned God years ago.

Is all that is happening here just “talk”? When we can sit and learn from someone who gave up his Catholic faith in college and has subsequently been practicing Buddhism for over 30 years, something is happening. When an atheist who gave up his religious views because of deep philosophical considerations, yet is interested in issues of meaning and life enough to join us and contribute — something is happening. When a person who hasn’t stepped into a church for years, but still considers herself spiritual pulls up a chair to listen: something is happening. When ten of us from very different perspectives can wrestle together about questions like — “Can violence make the world a better place?” or “Is the weight of history unbearable without the idea of God?” or “Is privacy a God-given right?” — something is happening. When we build relationships with a bartender, a server, a pub owner, something is happening. When a beer distributor attends an interfaith event during DC Beer Week and says, “Man, this is so refreshing compared to other beer events I go to,” something is happening. When someone says, “I just don’t go to church anymore because it doesn’t mean much, but I come here because it is participatory, thoughtful and open” — something is happening.

And so as I reflect on the ongoing place of gatherings like pub theology and similar events, I liken it more and more to a spiritual discipline or practice. In other words, it is something that I intentionally participate in because it shapes me in important ways (again, it is not a gimmick to attract new members — though some might seem to use that approach). And like any other discipline or practice, it isn’t everything. So it isn’t fair to compare it to something that it isn’t, and that it isn’t trying to be. It isn’t those things, and it doesn’t need to be. It is one thing, among many things that a person might be involved in. And like a practice of, say, contemplative prayer — which incorporates deep moments of silence, one might say of it: “Nothing is happening. You should be doing something.”

Yet when I engage in contemplative practice, though it appears nothing is happening, much is happening: deep wells are being opened up within me. Space is created which heightens my awareness, deepens my senses, gives me more patience and love in which to encounter the very real challenges that life contains. My connection to the Spirit of God is renewed. It is far from nothing. In silence, I find that much is happening. And as a discipline, when I participate in it regularly and intentionally, it adds to the other things I am doing, which includes engaging in “action” and more visibly constructive types of things like building relationships in my neighborhood, being an activist for issues like peace instead of war, dismantling mass incarceration and recidivism, tuning in to environmental /climate realities and how I might be a participant in and advocate for the natural world, creating a community of people seeking to engage their world while deepening a connection to Jesus and more.

And so pub theology, like prayer, or fasting, or Scripture reading, is a discipline. One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking.

It is also, in a way, like preventive medicine. When I know someone as a person, I am less likely to judge them harshly based on preconceived stereotypes. If I know a peace-loving evangelical or Muslim, I am less likely to judge all evangelicals or Muslims as endorsers of violence. If I meet a deeply thoughtful, liberal Christian, I realize that they aren’t just about feelings or dismissing orthodoxy, but are about careful, deep reading of Scripture and tradition. If I meet an atheist, I may well realize through her caring presence that atheists are just as thoughtful and intentional as anyone else. If all I have are stereotypes, I’m likely to help perpetuate them.

So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up. It is a practice that I value deeply, and — in many different ways, under many different titles — it is happening all over, and needs to be happening, and I’m glad to be a small part of it.


bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and pub theologian, and author of the book, Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.  Bryan currently facilitates weekly conversations at a bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Pub Theology Live-Tweet

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TONIGHT at our regular Pub Theology DC gathering, we’ll be LIVE TWEETING – you can join us in person, at the Bier Baron at 1523 22nd St NW – just a few blocks west of the Dupont Circle Metro stop, or you can jump in on the conversation via Twitter using #pubtheology. Be sure to follow me (@bryberg) and (@pubtheology). Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:

  1. If you could name the street you live on what would you call it?

  1. If you received an extra burrito when ordering at your local shop would you say something?

  1. True or false: We should be wary of any efforts to improve human nature.

  2. Did you march on Saturday? Are you marching tomorrow? Does marching lead to justice?

  1. Did Jesus pay for our sins? In what way?

  1. Is hell a just punishment for sinful people?

WE’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU!  Come on down and join us for a pint, or grab your smart phone, a craft-brewed pint, and hit the Twitters! Starting at 7pm.

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Part two in a series on Atonement. Read part one here: When Jesus Died.

This week: a primer on penal substitutionary atonement.

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I’ve recently been reading a book, Problems with Atonement. Some might say, “Problems? What problems? Is there a problem?” Or even: “There isn’t a problem.”

The traditional view is that humanity has a problem: sin, and God solves it: Jesus dies on the cross. It’s a concept many  of us learned in Sunday school, and perhaps haven’t thought much about since.  In other words, because we grew up with it – it is harder for us to see why there might be any sort of problem(s).

So let’s sketch out the usual, or at least traditionally evangelical, view:

1) Humanity is sinful (this is a state we  are born into,vis-à-vis Adam and Eve). It is not simply that we sin, but that our essence is sinful.

2) This sinfulness cuts us off from God.

3) God made provisional ways for people to  approach him in the ancient world of the Hebrews through the sacrificial  system, particularly  the ‘day  of atonement’.

4) But this didn’t change  the heart issue: only whether people could at some level approach God through mediators (the priestly system and  sacrifices).

5) Jesus arrives and God’s final plan for redemption is revealed: Jesus’  death is seen as the final and ultimate sacrifice, bridging  the gap between humanity  and God for all  time. Earlier  attempts are now seen as foreshadowings or  ‘types’ that were all along pointing to Jesus.  This includes both sacrificial language and language of  temple, priesthood, and even Passover.

The idea is simply  this: humanity is so sinful, and God so holy, that rectification or cleansing must occur for us to approach God.

A closely related point is that God requires sacrifice to appease his anger over sin.

All of these points seem to be in  play in the Old Testament cultic (read: *priestly*) system, and get transferred over to Jesus in the New Testament.  (I prefer to use Hebrew Scriptures and Gospels and Paul instead of ‘Old’ and ‘New’, but will occasionally use OT and NT to help us see how those terms even came to be used – and why ultimately it may be better to avoid them).

This is a comforting view for many: God love us so much that he sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  In other words, because God knew we could never cross the gap, he crossed it for us. (No pun intended).

Bloody Good Music

There are plenty  of songs  that celebrate this view:

There is Power in the Blood
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

Refrain:

There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

and

Nothing But the Blood

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Refrain

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.


And there are plenty of others (feel free to remind us of some others in the comments).

This view we have been describing here has a technical name: penal substitutionary atonementPenal in that there was a penalty to be paid for justice to be done. Substitutionary in that Christ took the place of humanity by paying the penalty. And the word atonement itself means that this has happened: someone ‘atoned for’ or ‘covered over’ our sins.

This is what a person will generally mean when he says, “Jesus died for me.”

A similar definition is given in the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

The Doctrine of penal substitution teaches that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin . . . the Lord Jesus Christ died for us — a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.

I  wanted to give this view a basic representation before beginning to get to some of the potential problems inherent in such a framework as mentioned at the outset.

A few  more questions to leave you with:

  • Does this view resonate with you? Why? Why not?
  • What texts  support this view? Are there others that undermine it? What view(s) did the earliest Christians hold?
  • Do you think Jesus had this view of his own role in God’s larger plan? Did Jesus more or less come to earth just to die?
  • Is it moral to punish one person so that others escape such punishment?
  • Is God ‘purchasing’ salvation in this framework? If so, from whom?
  • If God had planned such a complete and total way to enact forgiveness, why wait so long?
  • Why does God need someone to be punished for sin? Why can’t he just forgive straight out?
  • If God created humanity capable of committing sin, then placed them in a situation in which such sin was likely, is it moral or just to expection perfection, and then hold out eternal conscious torment as the appropriate sentence?


Next time we’ll get into some of the background of the Hebrew sacrificial system, how it is presented (and develops) in the text, how it compares to contemporary Ancient Near Eastern cultic approaches, and how this language is re-appropriated by some of the New Testament authors.

Read Part 3 here: A Soothing Aroma.

Gentle Soldiers? Yoga and Meditation in the Military

Yoga for Soldiers. Photo courtesy of defense.gov.
Yoga for Soldiers. Photo courtesy of defense.gov.

WASHINGTON DC – I live down the road from the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which served more than 150,000 active and retired personnel from all branches of the military before moving to its new location in Bethesda, MD.

In 2006, yoga teacher Robin Carnes began teaching yoga at Walter Reed to returning soldiers suffering from severe cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s cleansing — I really feel refreshed,” Marine Sgt. Senio Martz said after finishing a recent yoga session.

“Once dismissed as mere acrobatics with incense, yoga has been found to help ease the pain, stiffness, anger, night terrors, memory lapses, anxiety and depression that often afflict wounded warriors,” notes Huffington Post blogger David Wood.

Alarmingly high suicide rates among veterans, as well as domestic violence, substance abuse and unemployment, suggested to some military doctors, combat commanders and researchers that conventional treatments, such as mind-numbing drugs, aren’t always enough.

Yoga and meditative practices are now gaining wide acceptance within hard-core military circles.

When she started at Walter Reed, Robin Carnes said, she was working with eight wounded troops with physical and mental health injuries. Some hadn’t slept for more than two hours at a time, for years, she said. “They were immediately like, ‘I can’t do this, it won’t work, you have no idea what’s going on in my brain.’ I’d say, ‘Just try it, it’s helped others.’ And probably because they were desperate — nothing else had worked, including drugs — they did try it. And I saw, sometimes within the first day, they started to relax. Snoring! They’d tell me, ‘I don’t know what happened, but I feel better.'”

One of her patients was struggling with outbursts of violent anger, a common effect of PTSD, and had gotten into raging arguments with his wife. Several weeks into regular yoga classes, Wood reports, he went home one day “and his wife lit into him and he could feel a confrontation coming on,” Carnes said. “He told me that he’d taken a deep breath and told his wife he was going upstairs to meditate. And that was the first time he’d been able to do that.”

“I knew anecdotally that yoga helped — and now we have clinical proof of its impact on the brain, and on the heart,” said retired Rear Adm. Tom Steffens, a decorated Navy SEAL commander and yoga convert. Within the military services and the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said, “I see it growing all the time.”

In his HuffPo piece, Wood makes a historical connection:

“the military’s embrace of yoga shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, yoga — a Sanskrit word meaning to “join” or “unite” — dates back to 3,000 B.C., and its basic techniques were used in the 12th century when Samurai warriors prepared for battle with Zen meditation. Still, some old-timers are shocked to find combat Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and amputees at James A. Haley VA Medical Center practicing their deep breathing techniques.”

No Time For Silence

Now yoga and meditation are being utilized by the military not just for returning veterans, but on the front end: in training.

And not everyone is happy about it.

At the beginning of a regular radio address in January, the Family Research Council head, Tony Perkins, declared: “In the military, it’s out with God–and in with the goofy!”

What does he think is goofy?

Yoga classes being offered to military members.

perkins-yoga
“I just don’t get it.”

Andrew Kirell at Media-ite reported that Perkins noted the “goofy” style of exercise has been used as a “wacky” substitute for a “personal relationship with God,” effectively driving religion out of the military.

“As part some new training, Marines are being asked to join weekly yoga and meditation classes,” he explained. “Sergeant Nathan Hampton said the idea took some getting used to. ‘Why are we sitting around a classroom doing weird meditating stuff?’ he wondered.”

Perkins neglected to mention that in the very same Washington Times article [where he got the quote], Sgt. Hampton continued on to explain that he warmed up to yoga and now enjoys the practice: “Over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better. Physically, I noticed that I wasn’t tense all the time. It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit,” he’s quoted as saying.

Nevertheless, Kirell reports that Perkins continued on:

“Former Army Captain Elizabeth Stanley says it’s to relieve stress. She’s the one behind M-Fit, or Mind Fitness Training. She insists the New Age approach ‘creates a sense of calmness, reduces drug and alcohol use, increases productivity, and improves working relationships.’

“What a coincidence–so does faith! Unfortunately, the military seems intent on driving religion out and replacing it with wacky substitutes,” he continued. “They’ve added atheist chaplains, Wiccan worship centers, and now, meditation classes. But none of them are as effective or as constructive as a personal relationship with God. Unfortunately, though, it’s mind over what matters–and that’s faith.”

Ugh. I scarcely know where to begin.

I’m glad to hear that some veterans are getting some treatment that is at least helping to some degree.

It’s frustrating, but probably unsurprising, that folks like Perkins would be offended and scared about people actually slowing down and pausing for some silence and paying attention to their minds, hearts, and bodies, rather than ignoring them.

I’ve found that meditative and contemplative practices give me space and clarity and patience, something all of us need. Not to mention that these practices can create space in which to connect deeply with God.

Why Perkins pits contemplation and yoga against faith is beyond me. Contemplative practice has been a huge part of faith, including the Christian faith, for centuries. I suppose, as a good evangelical, he keeps thinking that Christianity really only began with Dwight Moody, Billy Graham, and the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century.  (Never mind that yoga practices are a fair bit older than Christianity.)

A few comments in reaction to this story:

“If the answer to everything is faith, why do they even have guns? I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t run around sporting a camo uniform over body armor and toting an assault rifle and hand grenades.”

“I assume then that [Tony Perkins] doesn’t practice yoga, leaving [him] inflexible in both body and mind.”

“The ancients evolved yoga as the means to getting control of consciousness; calming down in the process, thereby benefiting health– physical, mental, and also more subtly, the spiritual within us. The simple act of sitting and concentrating on one thing (meditation) offers all sorts of rewards, such as the ability to lessen reactions to emotional content that comes up (which directly helps those who’ve seen combat). Not to pretend them away, no, but to acknowledge and honor those difficult emotions, but not yielding any longer to them in a passive way. A spaciousness that is healing comes from the practice. It’s the difference between drifting and steering.”

“We need to grow up and realize that we, the Americans, aren’t the be all and end all of civilization(s) past, present and future. We should look for the best from all cultures, religions, beliefs and try to emulate those in our lives; not worry and complain because something that conflicts with our own religious beliefs is being used to great success.
We should listen instead to those who preach inclusion. Our planet is small, we are many; it’s obvious to all forward thinking peoples that we will have to one day learn to live peaceably with each other. Our daily lives are filled with bombs, constant aggressive war, and ever-expansive military budgets to kill, maim and torture, but we hear nothing from Mr. Perkins, the Christian, on those subjects.”

“What’s goofy is having a “Family Research Council”. Especially one that doesn’t do any actual research.”

“Well, God forbid military personnel engage in practices that improve their physical health, mental health, and general well-being. I mean, what do soldiers need strength and flexibility for?! And stress relief for soldiers is just silly! I mean, it’s not like they have a stressful job that can result in PTSD, depression, or mental health issues that could lead to suicide or homicide, right? We just hand them a Bible instead. After all, wasn’t Jesus doing such a good job exercising and meditating with them before?”

“Freedom of religion for our troops? Now that’s just un-American!”

“Hopefully he soon realises that meditation is not a religious activity unless you want it to be, and that there is something called Christian meditation which allows for a deeper understanding and contemplation of God and [can] strengthen the bonds between the believer and the Christian Church.”

My favorite comment, though, comes from Wipf & Stock editor Charlie Collier:

Tony Perkins is confused. Yoga, in the “mind fitness” or “stress relief” form being explored by the military, is probably not incompatible with Christian faith and practice. However, the sacrificial cult at the heart of American civil religion—whereby our freedom is allegedly purchased by the blood of “our” soldiers (never “theirs”!)—constantly threatens to overwhelm the Christian understanding of the finality and universality of the cross of Christ. Adding a personal relationship with Jesus, as Perkins wants, would only add insult to the primary injury—replacing the sacrifice of Christ with the sacrifice of soldiers (not to mention all the others sacrificed in war, including many innocent women and children). If Perkins wants to combat idolatry in the American military, he’s going to need to get more root and branch about matters.

What do you think? Are yoga and meditation a threat or a complement to Christian faith?  (Or general well being, for that matter).

Story credits to David Wood at the Huffington Post, and Andrew Kirell at Media-ite.

bryan-2Bryan Berghoef writes and tweets from the nation’s capital. He has written for the Huffington Post and Sojourners, serves as technical assistant at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and facilitates a new faith community: Roots DC. His book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God invites you to engage in deep conversations over a good beer.

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