“I am the Lord, your God. You shall not have strange gods before me.”
At first glance, it might seem like this commandment makes more sense for someone living in Biblical times than it does today. We read in the Bible that the people of Israel were often conquered or living among many other cultures – Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans – each of whom had their own gods and religious practices. Starting with this commandment makes a lot of sense in those times, as God needed to remind the Israelites to stay faithful to Him by avoiding the gods of these other cultures.
For those of us living in the twenty-first century, this commandment still has meaning. YouCat explains that it starts by recognizing that God is God, and that there is no other (Deuteronomy 4:35):
“Because the Almighty has revealed himself to us as our God and Lord, we must not place anything above him or consider anything more important or give any other thing or person priority over Him. To know God and to serve and worship Him has absolute priority in our life.” -YouCat 352
Obeying the first commandment, then, begins from a positive angle. We are called to be in an exclusive relationship with God, loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:30). But like any exclusive relationship, this means that there are also things we should not do. YouCat 355 lists several other things that this commandment forbids us from, since they in one way or another put something else before God:
- To adore other gods and pagan deities or to worship an earthly idol or to devote oneself entirely to some earthly good (money, influence, success, beauty, youth, and so on)
- To be superstitious, which means to adhere to esoteric (seeing the truth as being only for a small group of ‘experts’), magic, occult, or New Age practices or to get involved with fortune telling or spiritualism, instead of believing in God’s power, providence, and blessings.
- To provoke God by word or deed.
- To commit a sacrilege (desecrating something sacred).
- To acquire spiritual power through corruption and to desecrate what is holy through trafficking (buying and selling church offices or sacred things, often called ‘simony.’)
Many of these might seem obvious. To engage in pagan worship or consciously choose another person or thing over God is literally to have another god before Him. It is the same thing as my marriage: I have chosen to have my wife before every other woman in the world. There is no room in my life to give myself either partly or wholly to another since I have promised to be true to her. But some may seem a little less clear. What of New Age practices? YouCat speaks of the need to avoid various practices and -isms that can be contrary to Christianity, including yoga and meditation:
“Many people today practice yoga for health reasons, enroll in a meditation course so as to become more calm and collected, or attend dance workshops so as to experience their bodies in a new way. These techniques are not always harmless. Often they are vehicles for doctrines that are foreign to Christianity. No reasonable person should hold an irrational view, in which people can tap magical powers or harness mysterious spirits and the ‘initiated’ have a secret knowledge that is withheld from the ‘ignorant.’” -YouCat 356
I recognize that bringing up yoga is going to be controversial. Many refuse to broach this subject because yoga is such a big part of their lives. The benefits are such that it would seem there should be no reason for concern. But our subjective experience of something doesn’t determine whether something is right or wrong… remember that when Adam and Eve took the fruit God had forbidden them to eat, it looked appealing (cf. Genesis 3:6).
But what does the Church teach on this subject? A quick internet search might lead you to a series of well written articles that declare yoga harmless or an equal number of articles that declare it sinful. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find two documents the Vatican has published that address the question of yoga in the context of other New Age practices. One is a letter from Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith written in October 1989, which says:
“The love of God, the sole object of Christian contemplation, is a reality which cannot be “mastered” by any method or technique. On the contrary, we must always have our sights fixed on Jesus Christ, in whom God’s love went to the cross for us and there assumed even the condition of estrangement from the Father (cf. Mk 13:34). We therefore should allow God to decide the way he wishes to have us participate in his love. But we can never, in any way, seek to place ourselves on the same level as the object of our contemplation, the free love of God; not even when, through the mercy of God the Father and the Holy Spirit sent into our hearts, we receive in Christ the gracious gift of a sensible reflection of that divine love and we feel drawn by the truth and beauty and goodness of the Lord.”
According to this document, the danger of New Age techniques (like Yoga) is that it is spiritually centered on ourselves rather than on God. This is a concern that is echoed in the second document, a 2003 reflection on the New Age Movement from the Pontifical Councils for Culture & Interreligious dialogue titled Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life. This document defines the New Age as “ideas which circulate about God, the human being and the world, the people with whom Christians may have conversations on religious matters, the publicity material for meditation groups, therapies and the like, explicit statements on religion and so on.” It references Yoga as a “tradition which flows into the New Age” and which “leads to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment.” Most helpfully, this document presents a series of questions we can use to evaluate the value of a particular practice. We are asked to consider questions like salvation: “Do we save ourselves, or is salvation a free gift from God?”, truth: “Do we invent truth or do we embrace it?”; and when we pray “Are we talking to ourselves or to God?” Honest answers to these sort of questions can help us come to see whether a specific practice is or is not compatible with our faith.
There’s a second concern raised in these documents regarding New Age practices. The Bearer of the Water of Life warns us of different spiritual techniques that are practiced with the intention of “(reproducing) mystical states at will as if they were a matter of laboratory material… these practices all create an atmosphere of psychic weakness (and vulnerability).” The concern here is that we are opening ourselves up to a spiritual world apart from Christ. This is not only a breaking of this first commandment to give God the absolute priority in our life… it’s a danger because we can be opening ourselves up to a spiritual world we do not understand. While I’ve written another article that addresses this danger in more detail, we need to return to the question at hand: what about yoga?
Dan Connors, the former editor of Catholic Digest has also wrestled with the question and read the Church’s documents on the New Age. He sums up the Church’s concerns in an article titled “Is Yoga Sinful?”:
“The Church is right to be concerned about the New Age. The New Age movement feeds off not just forms of Eastern spirituality and any other tradition it wants to, but Catholic ones as well. Too often Catholics don’t know enough about their own traditions to know where Catholicism ends and New Age forms take over.” For example, I recently read a book about angels written by a woman who is a practicing Catholic and proud of spending all her educational years in Catholic schools. Some of her book is traditional Catholic angelology, but there are places where she starts to go astray, and many times she wanders straight into New Agey, The Secret-style craziness: “Visualize opening envelopes full of cash,” she tells the reader, “or envelopes full of checks all made out to you. Don’t think about bills and not having enough or you will get more of the same. Don’t think ‘This stuff doesn’t work.’ Because if you do, the Universe says ‘Your wish is my command,’ and your potential for abundance disappears.
That is a great example of what the Vatican is afraid of: People who don’t know the difference between Catholic belief and this kind of nonsense easily wander off, from the former to the latter.
And I think this also shows the Church’s concern about yoga: it’s not the stretches and poses that the Church is worried about, it’s some of the Eastern mysticism that underlies them and is often taught with them. Some of that approach to God is really not compatible with our tradition, and if a Christian buys into it and, even unknowingly, blends it with their Christian faith, then that faith may end up in a syncretic mess — perhaps not the portal of hell, but not good for one’s Christian spiritual growth either.”
We can easily look at this First Commandment as something we don’t really need to concern ourselves with. After all, we don’t live in the same sort of polytheistic culture the Israelites and the early Church did. We don’t face the temptation to abandon God for another in the same way as they did. At the same time, we find in our own time that the lines between religions in our world are much less clear. When you couple this with the fact that many of us don’t know our faith as well as we should, our temptation is just as real: we are tempted to accept and embrace practices and worldviews that are contrary to the faith. And so, we also need to be mindful of the First Commandment in our own lives seeking ways to ensure that we know, serve, and worship God, avoiding anything that would draw us away from Him.
“No reasonable person should hold an irrational worldview, in which people can tap magical powers or harness mysterious spirits and the initiated have a secret knowledge that is withheld from the ignorant. In ancient Israel, the surrounding peoples’ belief in gods and spirits were exposed as false. God alone is Lord; there is no god besides him. Nor is there any (magical) technique by which one can capture or charm ‘the divine,’ force one’s wishes upon the universe, or redeem oneself.” -YouCat 356
-Mike Landry is Catholic Youth Camps director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. He is also chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools, serving 10 schools west of Edmonton. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain with their five children.