Monthly Archives: February 2013

trinitarian personhood

The Trinity is recognized as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their differentiated forms, and yet also as a single entity. The paradoxical three-in-one-ness of the trinity can be a foundation to an individual’s understanding of self as plurality within an integrated unity.

In the western world today, we are accustomed to thinking of our selves as segmented into clear-cut definitions of mind, body, and soul. When a concept of divided self is accepted, the selves compete with one another for dominance. For decades, the mind and soul have held supreme importance over the body. Logic and faith held in the mind have been believed to be the way to salvation. The soul is given special ranking as it is the piece of an individual that is granted eternal life. Such an intellectualizing of the gospel contributes to loss of the body, which the incarnation of Jesus combats: it was important for God to become enfleshed, and so it must be important for us to recognize our bodily selves as well. Even before the embodiment of the divine person, God in Her infinite wisdom created us to be embodied creatures; I trust She had good reasons.

The trinitarian nature of God can be explained as correlating to our construction of identity: Christ is analogous to the body, Father to the mind, and the Spirit to an individual’s soul. Such constructs forget the essential aspect of unity: God still recognizes Herself as one integrated being. Jesus cites the Shema as the most important commandment; God in flesh tells us that the most important thing to know is that God is one.

Spiritual formation should point the Christian to a relational understanding within his/herself, correcting the cultural norm of competition. When we stop viewing unique identities as in competition with one another, they are allowed to relate and grow through one another. Jeremy Begbie provides the idea of notes sounding: although a single note “fills the entirety of my aural space,”  two notes interpenetrate to occupy the same space while retaining their individual sound. The interpenetration allows each note to be more fully itself. When an individual can understand his selves as sounding through one another to be more themselves, true growth and acceptance is possible. The body becomes connected to the soul, the mind develops through bodily experiences; the interplay is part of the beauty. This work might be called introversive atonement, an at-one-ment that brings unity to a fractured self, or a-tone-ment that heals the mind and soul through toning work of the body.

This piece was originally part of the final exam for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write 3 essays in 2 hours.

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discernment: behold the bookshelf

Growing up, I was taught that God lived in church and we spoke to him in prayers that only counted if our hands were folded and eyes closed. It’s taken me years to unlearn this, to realize that for those who are listening, God’s voice can be found anywhere and everywhere, and spoken to through all manner of actions. Meditators find Her in silence, musicians hear Her in rhythm, yogis touch Her in asanas.

I’m a reader through and through. Even before I could read, I loved the pictures in books, the worlds they contain. That love, combined with a mildly developing case of obsessive compulsion, led to an obvious career choice by the time I hit middle school: librarianship. My father suggested it, not as a matter of discernment or dreaming, but as a practicality: it fit our community’s standard of professionalism, and the skills required seemed to fit my natural abilities. So the plan was set: I would be a librarian. Specifically, I would be Dean of Libraries in an university, by the time I hit middle-age.

Occasionally I doubted my career path, but I would look at my crammed two-rows-deep bookshelf and be reassured. Certainly my towering collection of literature from all eras and for all ages pointed in this direction. Sure, there was that shelf holding works of Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, C.S. Lewis, and Donald Miller (alphabetical by last name, as compulsion demanded), but Christianity was only an aspect of my life, an interest. It had nothing to do with my search for a vocation.

My last semester of undergrad I began searching for a library science program. I drove around the midwest touring. I don’t entirely know what I was looking for on those campuses—I had compared programs and costs, pros and cons, all in an elaborate spreadsheet—but no school I toured felt right. Finally I made the thirteen-hour drive to UNC Chapel Hill, where my sister was about to start a graduate program. On paper it was the perfect option: top-ranked in the nation, my sister nearby to help me adjust, the only city in the world my parents were guaranteed to visit.

It felt wrong. The moment I set foot on campus. I still kept my appointment with admissions, of course; I politely took the brochure and application and scholarship forms, but I knew I wouldn’t be enrolling, or even applying. I told my family that I didn’t think I was “supposed to be” a librarian; they thought that I was irrational, made some comments about “that church” I had been attending.

Back in Michigan, I restlessly tried to settle myself enough to listen and discern. Despite my parents’ outspoken skepticism, I knew God would call me to something if I could stop planning long enough to hear.

I read a lot. I looked into my books for an answer.

It took a few weeks to realize that I was looking too closely, peering through a microscope when all I needed were glasses. I put the books down and took a step away from the bookcase. I started noticing a weird slant in my recent literature choices: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Saramago; Malamud’s God’s Grace; Lamb by Moore. As I looked again at the shelf of theology, so readily ignored in past moments of discernment, the obviousness of my call broke me.

It wasn’t just the bookshelf, it was that so many things converged in my life that I hadn’t noticed until that moment. In those same weeks that I had been uncomfortably waiting for some sort of direction, I had been asked to lead a small church group in which I was a member (which I fought every step of the way; “I’m a woman” was my first excuse), asked to be involved in other parts of the church, told by my pastor that my baptism statement “changed lives”, and was approached by enough people in the congregation to begin believing his statement; I had become a kind of figure in my church, much to my surprise and my parents concern. The bookshelf broke me because, although God had been whispering in other aspects of my life, it was here that She shouted.

Of course, that’s not the end of my discernment process. There were lots of conversations and tears and prayers before the choice to enter seminary. Even now, I accept the call to study and learn of God, but there are still many questions about what’s next. Some people call being in seminary without wanting to be a pastor “denial”, but for me it’s just life. One graduating student recommended that I find a niche in which to direct my assignments, an area of focus that will guide my work and maybe lead to vocation when it’s time. This time I knew where to look: my bookcase, sorted now into literature, theology, and general nonfiction (although still by author’s last name). So many of the books in all three categories are on themes of bodyliness, physicality, complications of sex and sexuality. Which is where I’m choosing to start, averting my gaze from the stack of writing about writing, books on producing books.

And yet, that little stack nags at me, interrogates me. What are you doing at this school? Is this a four-year Resistance, delaying the work you know needs to be done? The work you were meant to do? In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says,

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Is my education in a new field something that is saving me, or a masochistic continuation of refusing to bring forth what is within me?

Unfortunately, these questions can’t be answered by my bookshelf. My theology studies epiphany came into an area into which my community had spoken and experiences were directing me. Now, my little stack of books is asking questions that I must bring outward into a community for evaluation and consideration. I must learn to have ears to hear all over the place, beyond churches and libraries.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on discernment; I specifically was asked to not do any more research, but to write on my experience.

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discipleship: christian yogis, asana disciples

Dallas Willard notes that the church no longer makes disciples, but settles for making converts. The cost of nondiscipleship for the individual is, in short, “that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.” For the church as a whole, the cost of nondiscipleship is just as high. Church leaders discuss the problem of people leaving the church, yet I wonder if perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, by no longer offering programs of costly discipleship, the church is leaving people. The asanas, or postures, practiced in yoga could contribute to a discipline that, as Martin Copenhaver notes, helps practitioners to “experience the unity of body and spirit more fully than our [the church’s] current modes of worship do”  and thus support a Christian’s discipleship. Postural yoga offers a worthwhile practice for the spiritual formation of Christian disciples.

The physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of yoga are well-documented, yet debates continue over whether or not the practice is beneficial or even acceptable for Christians. Andrea Jain writes with frustration of a yogi scholar who “mistakenly bifurcates religious (read authentic) from nonreligious (read inauthentic) yoga.” Yoga, Jain argues, is its own “cumulative tradition.” The practice we know today as yoga is the result of a dialogue between cultures and philosophies, and thus transcends the boundaries of religion as a spiritual practice fitting for anyone who wishes to become closer to God under any name.

Prayer sometimes looks like this.

Some Christians fear that yoga is inseparable from Hinduism and thus is idolatry. To forbid the practice on this basis, writes Sheveland, is to espouse a “container theory of religious identity” that builds walls around religion, shutting off interfaith dialogue before it begins through breeding fear and hatred. Sheveland adds that it is the most committed Christians who are “able to share in and learn from the practices of other traditions without fearing the loss of identity.” Yoga, then, can become a way to not only further a Christian individual’s discipleship of Christ, but also to aid in bridging gaps between faiths, perhaps even as a form of relational evangelism.

The idolatry that does exist in American yoga has little to do with Hinduism but, as Mary Hinkle Shore points out, much more so with “the glorification of beauty and youth … and trust in consumer goods” that we see throughout American culture. Any set of consumer goods that promise a perfect body and happy life has the set-up to become an idol, and this is true not only in yoga but also within the Christian tradition. Prosperity gospels in any form simply are not good news freely offered.

At the heart of the matter is the appropriateness and perhaps even necessity of redefining Christian living. The contemporary Church thinks of prayer as words directed toward God, but throughout the centuries we have seen creative alternatives. Ronald Rolheiser writes that “sometimes other words are used instead of the word prayer … but the essential idea is the same.” He notes that in order to pray always, we must learn to ponder in the biblical sense of “patiently holding [a situation or image] inside of one’s soul, complete with all the tension that brings.” The asanas offered in yoga provide a beautiful way to learn how to carry tension with dignity and peace, a work of the body that trains the soul, often without need for translation or additional effort.

Some Christians are suspect of the understanding or importance of the body in yoga. Losana Boyd writes that her experience of yoga practice lead her back to the Church because she found yoga to be lacking, largely dismissing the benefits. She writes that yoga “can release our attachment to the physical world … by first fully inhabiting the body,” whereas a Christian view of the body is that it has value simply because God created it. Boyd writes as though these two statements are mutually exclusive, but I see them as reflections of one another: the body is valuable (Christian view) and because of that we must fully inhabit it (a practice with which asanas can help). John Sheveland helpfully asks,

““Might asanas influence a Christian’s understanding of herself as a physical body created in the image and likeness of God and thus an object of unutterable dignity, held in being and redeemed by God?”

Such care and respect for one’s body can help Christians better understand what it means to be incarnate and lead us to a deeper understanding of the one-ness of body and spirit.

Another problematic area for some Christians is the definition of sacred. As Boyd “turned back to the Church, the idea of a yoga mat as sacred began to sound spiritually dangerous.” I had the opposite experience. A yoga mat is easily transportable; if anywhere I set it can become sacred, then on what holy ground am I treading without realizing it? Plenty of Christian texts support a paradigm shift of holiness. One of the most notable is Jacob upon awaking from his dream at Bethel. He exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it!” Nothing has changed in the landscape overnight, only Jacob’s perception of it. This is what a yoga mat can do for the disciple: a simple rectangle that can aid us in seeing any ground as holy, and provoke wonder at what else might be holy but overlooked in its familiarity.

Such re-orientation of a life toward God is the primary goal of discipleship. The discipline of postural yoga can be of aid to a Christian seeking to embody worship and beliefs, and should be accepted and encouraged as a discipleship for those who are called to it.

This piece originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on discipleship.

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