Monday, July 11, 2005

ELF Experiments with New-Age Avoda Zara

I attended my first yoga class on Thursday. It was enjoyable. Most of the exercises were physically intensive, but at the end of the class, the instructor asked us to lie on our backs and try to get in touch with the "energy in everything" and "experience it as joy." Eventually, he said, we would learn to channel and "radiate" that joy to the people around us.

I'm a good sport, so I gave it a shot. For five minutes or so, I lay on my mat, not thinking too much, just breathing and feeling. As soon as the class was over, though, the analytical side of my mind kicked back into gear. The first thing I thought was, "what the hell??"

I don't know much about the philosophy behind yoga (or Eastern religion in general), but it seems to me that the notion of a "spirit" or "energy" inhabiting all physical things has attained much of its current popularity in the West as a response to the challenge that science poses to religion. The fundamental problem is this: the more we understand about the workings of the universe, the more it appears to be a causally closed system. Thoughtful people who believe in an active, independent God must imagine Him to be increasingly limited, not a direct force behind the weather, or the growth of plants, or the birth of babies, but a remote force, lurking behind some distant, primordial event that scientists have yet to fully explain. It is difficult to imagine such a God being truly relevant to our daily existence, even if, as some assert, He planned the entire course of history from the outset.

An alternative to this approach is to expand God rather than contracting Him, imagining a divine spirit inhabiting all that exists. But what does it mean for God to be part and parcel of a causally closed system? Can one pray to a god who is indistinguishable from a fruit fly, or the force of gravity? Can such a deity command ethical behavior?* I'm all for feeling at one with the universe and radiating joy to the rest of humanity, but why get in touch with God when I could accomplish the same thing by eating a bowl of ice cream? Can this sort of theology provide an adequate substitute for theism in the modern world? Many liberal Jews and Christians seem to think so. But I have my doubts.

* I realize that classical yoga includes prayer and ethical conduct. It also usually includes theism (I think). But I'm not really talking about classical yoga, which I clearly don't know much about . . .

15 comments:

Dovid said...

What you need is a good dose of chabad chassiduss. And I'm not missionizing over here. chabad explains this phenomenon, and it explains the dvar havaya which is mechaye and mehavve everything, (spirit) etc. learn and youll be satisfied.

elf said...

What do you suggest I read?

Dovid said...

Tanya

Mis-nagid said...

Judaism, its precursors, and its spinoffs look exactly like the religion you'd invent if the world was flat with a blue dome overhead and nature a capricious, willfully malicious force. There's no integration of the idea that we're not the center of existence or that nature is not anthropomorphic. The New Age religions are a response to the god of the gaps phenomenon and the kicking of humans and earth off the self-centered pedestal. The sun is just another sun among trillions? The whole universe is god. Humans are just another animal? All animals are godly or full of "life-force."

As to sustainability, it depends on what you're asking it to sustain. It can't sustain frumkeit, but then I don't think anything other than enforced ignorance can. If it is asked to sustain yoga, then, yeah, it can do that.

elf said...

The New Age religions are a response to the god of the gaps phenomenon and the kicking of humans and earth off the self-centered pedestal. The sun is just another sun among trillions? The whole universe is god. Humans are just another animal? All animals are godly or full of "life-force."

That's probably true as well.

As to sustainability, it depends on what you're asking it to sustain.

I'm wondering whether it can sustain Judaism, broadly defined. To me, this would mean (1) commitment to communal norms of behavior, with a basis in the Torah and rabbinic tradition, and (2) communal worship.

Dovid said...

I'm telling you that Tanya deals with these issues before they posed a threat to torah belief. It isn't even a responsa. It's fact. Have a look, it won't hurt.

elf said...

I have no objection to reading Tanya although it is not currently the Number One book on my list, I will get around to it). However, it can't address the sociological question of the current popularity of Eastern religion in the West.

Dovid said...

It does, because man is affected by his soul which senses the G-dliness of all created things. Ant when eastern religion offers that dogma, Jews jump at it. If only they'd have been exposed to Chassidic thought, they wouldn't resort to foreign religions.
No pressure. read and tell me what you think.

Abu Gingy said...

If only they'd have been exposed to Chassidic thought, they wouldn't resort to foreign religions.

*refrains from making obvious wisecrack about hasidism being a foreign religion*

Michael said...

What's a "causally closed system?" And why is its closedness important?

elf said...

Michael: The idea is that everything in the universe has another cause within the universe. These causes are increasingly detectable, which means they can't be directly attributed to an independently operating deity. For example, it is problematic to assert that God causes rain, since we understand the proximate and remote causes of rain and can even predict it. Moreover, that which cannot be predicted with certainty on the scale of individual events can generally be predicted on a larger scale; in other words, we can use the laws of probability to determine the likelihood of any given outcome. The laws of probability depend on the existence of randomness, a direct challenge to the notion of an active deity.

Dovid: I think the sense of which you speak has something to do with the phenomenon; however, I think that people often choose New-Agey religions over mystical manifestations of Judaism and Christianity because they don't complicate the picture with a deity who is separate from the universe in addition to being a part of it. Personally, I am somewhat drawn to the idea of a spiritually animated universe, but I am also quite skeptical of it. How do we know that when we feel "in touch" we are sensing something real, rather than simply projecting our humanity onto the rest of the world?

In any case, I really should read Tanya. Among other things, I am supposedly related to the author. (I'm not sure how seriously to take these family legends. I am supposedly related to the Vilna Gaon as well -- presumably through different ancestors ;-))

Dovid said...

All I can say is that the Bal HaTanya addresses your issues a lot better than I ever could.

warren said...

"..a causally closed system. Thoughtful people who believe in an active, independent God must imagine Him to be increasingly limited, not a direct force..."
Um, no. Definitely a misunderstanding of science. Weather is in principle not predictable, look up "The butterfly effect" and "Chaos theory" -- the essence of this is that microscopic changes have macroscopic effects. Also, quantum mechanics demonstrates the reversal of cause and effect (in some circumstances) and a true genuine randomness at the root of things. So at bottom the causes of things are truly, deeply random. All God has to do is twiddle the quantum randomness of the subatomic particles in an organized way and (nearly) anything can be made to happen within the laws of science.

I'm not saying I know God works this way. I'm saying that science does not teach us that causality is closed and there is no room left for God to work his magic. On the contrary, the materialistic scientific worldview leaves God an enormous amount of working area (a sea of control knobs, if you will) to generate whatever outcomes He pleases and yet not violate any scientific principles.

This sea of control knobs is about one control on each of about 10**99 particles in the Universe. The number of degrees of freedom is not exactly the same as the number of particles due to quantum entanglement and the Exclusionary principle and a whole raft other rules I've left out, which can be summarized as "The laws of physics" but the idea is the same.

elf's DH said...

You misunderstand the meaning of "causally closed" -- it does not mean the same thing as "deterministic." Quantum physics having probabilities in it does not make the system not causally closed, because the probabilities follow sets of physical laws.

I used to like the "twiddle the randomness" explanation, but, I don't anymore -- for a bit on why, see my own post on the subject.

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