briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, March 13, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, March 13, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Vocabulary Matters: World Health Organization Declares COVID-19 a Pandemic

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization formerly identified the COVID-19 virus as a global pandemic. Now, those words immediately seemed to strike panic and fear and there is reason for that. Considering the word “pandemic,” let’s just look at the vocabulary. If you’re looking at an epidemic, you’re looking at a major spread of a disease. You are looking at a pandemic when that becomes so universal, that’s the “pan,” that it is now affecting an incredibly large number of nations and with an impact upon society.

One of the things we need to note is that the word “pandemic” doesn’t necessarily mean deadly. Now in the case of COVID-19 it is deadly. It is estimated at this point that the death rate from COVID-19 is about 10 times the death rate from the average flu. But we’re also looking at the fact that if we are talking about a pandemic, it is because it is having an effect upon society and just over the course of the last 24 to 48 hours, perhaps even in the last 24 to 48 minutes by the time you hear this, the reality is that announcement after announcement is coming, closing after closing, action by action and policy by policy.

We’re not only looking at a pandemic as declared by the WHO, we’re looking at a leadership crisis. It’s a crisis for leaders in every dimension, in government and economics and business and education, in religion, from church leaders to governors of states and beyond, this has become a major test of leadership and that test comes down to many different dimensions as we will consider in days ahead. At this point, the most important issue is the date of Wednesday, two days ago, as the date that the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. The disease we should note was actually no less or no more deadly the day before versus the day after the World Health Organization made that declaration.

The virus is inanimate. It doesn’t care whether or not the World Health Organization identifies it as a virus, but we care because human beings need even in our vocabulary to try to have a measured and accurate way of grappling with the issues that confront us. We are looking at something on a different scale once we shift from the word “epidemic” to “pandemic.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that we ourselves are in any greater or lesser danger. It doesn’t necessarily mean that our proximate neighbors are in any greater or lesser danger. It does mean that this is now something that has reached worldwide attention and this requires some historical context. This happens very rarely, most notably in 1918 with the great flu epidemic, sometimes called the Spanish flu, and in 2009 with the H1N1 virus, also a form of influenza.

One of the problems that we as human beings have, and there are huge worldview implications here, is that given our own finitude and the structure of our own thinking, we continually are asking ourselves the question, how serious is this threat? How big is this problem? This is not only a matter for individual assessment, it’s a social experiment as well. We’re asking one another, listening to one another, trying to take the measure of one another and of our national leaders and international authorities, how serious is this threat? How imminent is the danger? Here again, the vocabulary matters. It matters that the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic on Wednesday. By next Wednesday, we’ll know a great deal more about what that means, but right now we know that the vocabulary really does mean something.

Part II

A Constitutional Right to Abort Down Syndrome Babies? Analyzing the Radical and Deadly Argument of the Pro-Abortion Movement

But next, as we are thinking about human dignity and the sanctity of human life, really important headlines also out of Wednesday, but in this case having to do with the case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and that case has to do with abortion. As Jacob Gershman reports for The Wall Street Journal, “A federal appeals court case heard Wednesday in Ohio could help shape a contentious question in abortion law, should a woman be allowed to terminate a pregnancy because of the fetus’ disability, race or gender?” Now, as we’re thinking about the great worldview divide in the United States and as we’re thinking about the issue of abortion as one representation of that divide, let’s just consider how that single paragraph in this Wall Street Journal article illustrates that divide and effectively widens the divide.

When you’re thinking about that great clash of worldviews, on the one hand you have the Christian biblical worldview that says that abortion is an unconditional evil, that intentional abortion, the intention to destroy the baby in the womb is a form of murder, that it is the destruction of a human being, that it is a violation of the fact that life is God’s gift and that it is a contradiction to human dignity and the sanctity of human life. The affirmation on this side is that every single human life under every condition from the moment of fertilization until natural death, every single human being, regardless of race or ethnicity or what might be classified as disability, is equally made in the image of God. Every life is equally sacred and no life is to be intentionally destroyed in the womb, period.

But then on the other side, it’s not just those who somehow come up with a disagreement over one of those points, but rather over the totality. What you will note here is that there are people coming before this federal court in order to argue that what is defined as and claimed as a woman’s constitutional right to abortion in the United States means that she has a right to an abortion for any reason, for any conceivable reason, or even for no reason at all. That’s how deep this divide is, but rarely do you have the divide illustrated in such stark and honest terms as you have in this hearing before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and in the news coverage about the hearing. As Gershman tells us, “The full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the validity of an Ohio law that makes it illegal for a physician to perform an abortion on a woman whose motivation is fear that the fetus has Down syndrome. Abortion opponents say the case is winnable in one of the nation’s most conservative legal venues and could send the issue to the Supreme Court.”

Now later in the article we read, “Abortion rights groups argue that limiting the right to terminate a pregnancy before viability is categorically unconstitutional and that Supreme Court precedent doesn’t permit such exceptions.” Notice here the phrase “categorically unconstitutional.” We need to recognize the argument that is being made here. The argument being made by the pro-abortion side is that at least until the moment of viability that a woman has a categorical constitutional right to destroy the baby within her, categorical means it is beyond any condition. It cannot be boundaried, it cannot be restricted. It is simply a categorical constitutional right.

Now, before we even look at that argument in the dimension of say, viability, we need to consider just how categorical this argument really turns out to be, the argument that a woman has a categorical right to abortion. Now, what would the so-called categorical right mean if we were to shift to the right from say abortion as the abortionists claim to something like free speech or free assembly as is actually enumerated in the U.S. Constitution? Let’s just consider speech. So do we have a categorical right to free speech? Well, the Constitution actually says that we have as American citizens a right to free speech. It’s right there in the U.S. Constitution. But if we have a right to free speech, is it genuinely categorical?

Well, the most famous case in American history concerning free speech before the Supreme Court included the court making very clear in the voice of one of its justices that it is not legal nor is it the rightful exercise of a constitutional right to declare, “Fire!” in a theater, in a crowded theater when there is no fire. There are other limitations upon free speech that are also enforceable by law and there of course also just considered sane and responsible in a society like ours. For example, it is illegal to divulge state secrets, military secrets, classified information. In so doing, could you simply claim that you are exercising free speech? I wouldn’t suggest trying that before the FBI or a federal court.

The point I want to make here is the extreme nature of the pro-abortion argument, the argument that abortion really is a categorical constitutional right at least until the point of viability. But here’s where we also need to recognize that the pro-abortion movement, doesn’t mean that the right isn’t as they declare it categorical after the point of viability. That is simply one of the legal stipulations in the case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals right now. The law at stake has only to do with abortions before the point of viability. The law at stake in Ohio is most controversial and the pro-abortion movement thinks most vulnerable in the prohibition of abortion in the case of a diagnosis of Down syndrome before viability. That’s why it is such an issue in the case.

Something else we need to note is that when you’re looking at the pro-abortion argument, it often comes down to the fact that the argument is simply for abortion regardless of any circumstance, no limitation whatsoever. It is not conceivable or allowable according to the logic of the pro-abortion movement that you could ever acknowledge that any abortion could be wrong, that the reason for a woman seeking an abortion in any case would be morally suspect, because once you do that, the entire edifice of abortion begins to fall. Alexa Kolbi-Molinas is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, that’s the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement on Tuesday, “This law,” meaning the law there in Ohio, “is nothing more than part of a nationwide attempt to push abortion out of reach.”

There you have an open acknowledgement. If you were to accept that one abortion might be wrong then more than one abortion is wrong. But then that takes us to the deepest, most important part of this issue, which is the recognition that the culture of death has proceeded so far in our society that at this point it is legal in almost every state without any kind of even statutory limitation, it is legal right now for a woman to demand an abortion and to receive one simply because the woman believes that the baby does or might have Down syndrome or that we’re looking at a baby that might be unwanted for other reasons, which could include ethnicity or any number of other qualifications that the woman just considers to be unacceptable.

We’re also living in the advancing age of the eugenic abortion, those are abortions that are performed simply because it is assumed by the mother that the baby is not acceptable for some reason. Now, we’re also living at the dawn of the age of the designer baby by genetic manipulation. How long will it be before mothers and fathers for that matter, receive information about the baby based genetic screening and simply decide we’re not going to have this baby because we want a baby with different color eyes, we want a baby with greater potential for athletic ability and performance?

Even right now, of course, this screening is used negatively by parents who test for certain genetic predispositions and decide, I simply don’t want the baby for that reason. But we’re also looking at the fact that it is likely the biggest cause of elective abortion based upon any of these characteristics worldwide is the intentional abortion of baby girls in the womb because of a preference for baby boys. But let’s just get this straight, the categorical phrase here is extremely important because we have to understand that for Christians, we believe in the categorical right to life. We believe in a categorical right of a baby to survive in the mother’s womb without anyone intervening intentionally to kill that baby. We believe categorically in human dignity and we’re facing off in this society now against those who really do claim a woman’s categorical right to abortion.

Now, the use of that word or this phrase now helps us to understand just how deep this divide turns out to be, just how wide the divide is demonstrated revealed to be in a world in which there are those who will contend not only for what they claim is a woman’s right to abortion, but even for a woman’s right to abortion for any imaginable reason. Just remember that negative logic one more time. If the pro-abortion movement were ever to accept that there might be at least one wrong reason or rationale for a woman to seek an abortion, then they would have to follow that logic as to how we would then define what would be the legitimate and illegitimate reasons for a woman to seek an abortion. But of course once you do that, you can no longer claim a woman’s categorical right to abortion and that’s the whole point, and that’s why the pro-abortion movement now becomes even more categorical if that’s imaginable day by day, even hour by hour.

Part III

Yoga in Alabama’s Public Schools? Why Authentic Yoga Can Never Really Be Just Stretching Exercises

But next, we turn to another very interesting headline that is filled with worldview importance. This headline comes in the New York Times in recent days. The headline itself, “In a plan to bring yoga to Alabama schools, stretching is allowed. Namaste isn’t.” In the article, Rick Rojas of the New York Times tells us that Alabama legislators are considering revising and lifting part of a law passed in 1993 that forbids yoga from Alabama’s public schools. The subhead in the article, “Critics say it is an inherently religious and non-Christian practice.” Non-Christian put in quotation marks. Rojas reports, “Across Alabama, yoga is freely taught at dozens of studios, in Christian churches and inside prisons, but for nearly three decades it has illegal to teach yoga, a combination of breathing exercises and stretches with connections to Hinduism and Buddhism inside the state’s public school classrooms with detractors warning it would amount to a tacit endorsement of a non-Christian belief.”

Rojas then tells us that could soon change if lawmakers have their way. One proposal scheduled for debate in the state house would have teachers guide students during school hours through various stretches. As the article tells us, “The legislation would permit students to stretch themselves into child’s pose or downward facing dog among other moves. Still off limits though: chants, mantras, and Namaste, which essentially means I bow to you.” One representative, in this case representative Jeremy Gray said, “I think a lot of minds have shifted.” We’re told that representative Gray routinely practices yoga and has taught it, speaking of his colleagues and what he hopes is their new found openness to yoga in Alabama’s public schools. He said, “They didn’t really understand it and now they understand it more. Their mothers do it, their wives do it. It really resonated with them. It can’t be bad if my wife does it.”

Well, actually of course it can be bad if your wife does it. It’s not necessarily bad because your wife does it, but it’s not necessarily not bad because your wife does it. It’s a very strange argument to make when it comes to morality, but it’s an argument that makes perfect sense if the issue is political plausibility. Politically, it does matter if your wife and your mother do it, but if this law is actually revised, their children will be doing it and that means yoga in Alabama’s public schools, or at least it would be allowed. Rick Rojas puts this in the context of larger changes in the society, “As an embrace of self-care has flourished so too has yoga, with practitioners gushing about its physical and psychological benefits. The rise of yoga has also been intertwined with a larger cultural shift as many have moved away from institutional religion to a less defined sense of spirituality.”

Rojas is really onto something there and when it comes to observing this trend in the larger American society, nothing really new here, but let’s just remember this story is from Alabama. Now we are being told that the wellness movement and the self-care movement is so pervasive that it explains how in a state like Alabama, where the overwhelming majority of citizens indicate some kind of Christian identity, church membership and participation, it tells us a great deal that this story is coming from Alabama and that yoga may soon be coming to Alabama’s public schools. Rojas also helpfully at least acknowledges that there just might be a religious issue in the background here.

But the reality is as I’ve made clear in many writings on yoga, yoga isn’t just incidentally or accidentally or sometimes religious. It is deeply based in both Hinduism and Buddhism and the traditional meditative practices that are inseparable from yoga as physical movement involve those traditional Buddhist and Hindu teachings, and it shows up not only in the word “Namaste,” it shows up even in the basic philosophy of what the body is doing. It also shows up in a distinct theological understanding of the body in motion and the body in pose. It also shows up in a deep conflict between Christianity and both Hinduism and Buddhism and yoga as a dimension of both when it comes to the purpose of the mind and how we are as Christians to exercise the mind.

Now, can Christians practice meditation? The answer there has to be very careful. Yes, Christians can practice meditation, but that meditation has to be, as described for instance in the Psalms, as meditation upon the Word of God. When you’re looking at Eastern forms of meditation, it is a look within rather than a look for instance to the text of Scripture. Not only that, in that look within the effort is to try to empty the mind of all passions. Now, that’s just deeply rooted in Hinduism and in Buddhism. It’s deeply rooted also in the practice of yoga. You also have to know a bit of history. How in the world did yoga come to the United States? Well, it didn’t come as a medical or physical phenomenon. It came overwhelmingly as a theological, as a religious phenomenon.

There’s another very interesting aspect of the New York Times article. For instance, we are told that the law if revised as proposed in Alabama would allow the introduction of yoga in Alabama’s public schools at the discretion of local school systems then, “It would be stripped of its spiritual aspects and non-English terminology. So while various stretching poses would be allowed, Namaste would remain verboten as would using chants or mantras.” Representative Gray said this, listen extremely carefully to his words, these are his own words, “Sometimes you have to have a steppingstone.” Now, whether he intended it as so or not, the reality is that that statement says just about everything about trying to argue that you can strip out just the physical aspects and the stretching exercises of yoga and it not be, well, there is his own word, a stepping stone to something else.

But we also have to understand that we as Christians have an understanding of what it means to be an embodied human being where we understand the body is inseparable from our spiritual understanding. We are embodied creatures not by accident, but by God’s sovereign purpose and for his glory. Here’s where we also have to understand that there’s nothing that we can do as some kind of meditative practice with the body that does not involve the mind and thus does not involve the soul.

Now, as a theologian, I want to be clear. I have no theological list of stances or poses or stretching exercises that are biblical versus unbiblical. Christianity has no such lists. We have no such kind of physical regimen as a part of Christian devotion. But when it comes to the origins of yoga, those theological roots are very apparent, and when you are looking at yoga, well for instance in this article we are told that some Christian churches have yoga programs within them. Well, that raises the question, what kind of yoga would this be and would it be with the honest acknowledgement that at least in the source of yoga, all of this comes out of either Hinduism or Buddhism or a mixture of the two? If it is merely stretching, then is it really yoga? If it’s yoga, it’s never merely stretching.

Stephanie Simon in her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America tells us how yoga came to the United States, how it became popularized even for example, by leaders in the White House, including first lady Michelle Obama who introduced yoga in the White House Easter egg roll.

She said, “Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy eating. We’ve got yoga, we got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter egg decorating.” But it was Stephanie Simon herself who made the observation that in so doing, the White House, “Sanitized, sanctioned, and made family friendly a practice of yoga that would have scandalized most Americans just a matter of a few decades earlier.” It’s also important that Christians understand that the mainstreaming of yoga in the United States was driven at least in part by groups such as the Transcendentalists and New Thought, and they were intentionally trying to create a spiritual practice and spirituality that would serve as a clear alternative to biblical Christianity.

But going beyond what I can safely discussed on The Briefing today, Stephanie Simon, in her book The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America also is extremely clear about the sexual roots of yoga and the fact that yoga in its origins was inseparable from an effort to try to orchestrate and to meditate upon sexual energy. Douglas R. Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, has warned Christians that yoga is not merely about physical exercise or health. In his words, “All forms of yoga involve a cult assumptions, even Hatha yoga, which is often presented as a nearly physical discipline.”

Now to be sure, most Americans are actually rather unaware of how the modern forms of what are packaged as yoga are far less explicit when it comes to sexual energy and Buddhist and Hindu presuppositions than was true when yoga first came to the United States. But they also have to understand that there are continuities even if those continuities are not conscious. Stephanie Simon, by the way, pointed out that modern yoga, “Is one of the first and most successful products of globalization and it,” she says, “Has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.” My guess is that representative Gray is not going to read from her book when he’s making his arguments to his fellow legislators in the state of Alabama.

We might summarize it this way. In reality, the Bible doesn’t have a list of acceptable and unacceptable stretches, exercises, or poses, but the Bible does make very clear what is to be a Christian understanding of the relationship between the soul and the body and furthermore, what it means to meditate, but at least Christians ought to agree that if we have an understanding of yoga and its historical context and in its religious origins, then at the very least we have to understand that there really is no such thing as Christian yoga. If it’s Christian, it’s not yoga. If it’s yoga, it’s not Christian.

There are, I will concede, some Christians who are frustrated, even bent out of shape when I talk about Christianity and yoga and they might tell me to tie myself in a knot, which given my concerns about yoga, I wouldn’t do if I could, which I can’t.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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