In early 1962, Thomas Merton wrote as follows, in an essay entitled “Christian Culture Needs Oriental Wisdom” (originally published in Catholic World 195 [May 1962], 72-79):
Does this mean that the suggestion given in our title is strictly true? Does Christian culture need Oriental wisdom? It would certainly be rash to state this without further qualification. Yet we may ask ourselves a few pertinent questions on the subject.
First of all, it is quite clear that no non-Christian religion or philosophy has anything that Christianity needs, in so far as it is a supernaturally revealed religion. Yet from the point of view of the “incarnation” of revealed Christian truth in a social and cultural context, in man’s actual history, we know how much Greek philosophy and Roman law contributed to the actual formation of Christian culture and even Christian spirituality. We know too with what breadth of view and with what lofty freedom the scholastic doctors of the thirteenth century made use of Aristotle and his Arabian commentators. It can certainly be said that if a similar use had been made of Oriental philosophy and religious thought from the very start, the development of Christianity in Asia would have been a different story. Our Western Christian thought and culture would also have been immeasurably enriched and deepened.
Have we not been too ready to dismiss Oriental philosophy without really attempting to understand it? Do we not still shrug it off with a few easy generalizations?
(A Thomas Merton Reader, 301-02.)
I thought about the above passage when I read, late last month, about the latest ecumenical efforts by Fabian Bruskewitz, retired Catholic Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska:
Retired Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz stirred up debate this month with a letter he wrote to Women of Grace, a Florida-based Catholic organization.
The organization wrote a blog post that says the letter advised “Catholics to steer clear of yoga because of its basis in Hinduism and to take up other methods of exercise that don’t place the faith in unnecessary danger.”
Women of Grace describes itself as Catholic apostolate “whose mission is to transform the world one woman at a time.” The organization lists Bruskewitz as a member of its board of directors.
See also here:
In his letter, he urged women to find other forms of exercise that do not jeopardize their faith. The issue with yoga is that it is based in Hinduism — a religion the Catholic church has called “incompatible to Christianity.”
That’s not to say all yoga enthusiasts embrace Hinduism — in fact most Americans taking part in yoga do it for the physical and mental benefits of stretching, breathing and meditating.
But still, practitioners say Hindu phrases such as “namaste” — commonly translated: “the light within me bows to the light within you” — they assume poses with names like sun salutations and warrior, which have deep roots in the Hindu faith.
Uh-huh. And that led to this: “Hindus have asked the Vatican to discipline retired Lincoln Diocese Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz for telling Catholics that doing yoga could lead to serious sin. In a statement issued Friday morning, Hindu cleric Rajan Zed urged Pope Francis to discipline Bruskewitz for the unnecessary condemnation of yoga. …”
And then, on a related note, there’s this: “Is Yoga Religious? In India, It’s a Vexed Question” (H/T: Althouse):
Senior Muslim leaders in India are unhappy that some state governments are giving children compulsory lessons in yoga, which they say involves some practices contrary to Islamic beliefs.
Leaders say the practice of “surya namaskar” or sun salutation – a series of poses – goes against Shariah or Islamic law, which doesn’t allow Muslims to bend before anyone other than Allah, or God.
“We don’t believe in praying to the sun,” said Mohammad Abdul Rahim Quraishi, spokesman for Lucknow-based All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Yet, Mr. Quraishi said that schools in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have made yoga sessions compulsory, and the lessons include “surya namaskar”. He said that the sessions also require chanting of the word “Om” or other Sanksrit verses or shlokas, which he believes are connected to Hindu religion.
“They are trying to impose Hindu religion. On that, we have objection,” Mr. Quraishi said.
Over the weekend, the Muslim Law Board said it would constitute an action committee to look into whether compulsory yoga teaching at schools violates Indians’ constitutional rights, said Mr. Quraishi.
India’s ruling Bharaitya Janata Party says yoga is a secular activity. Yoga “is a science that deals with the well-being of the human mind and body,” said BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli. “There is no religious angle to this at all.”
I wish that I had more to say about all of this, but the whole controversy just leaves me…speechless.
So, offered without further comment.
Image Credits: (1) Yoga in King George Square, Brisbane. Photo by John, July 2013. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Source: Flickr. (2) Photo by Matt Olsen, May 2008. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Source: Flickr.