A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Christianity vs Chi
by Christopher Dow
I recently wrote a review of Chinese Wand Exercises by Bruce L. Johnson, whose history—or one element of it—gave me pause. Johnson learned judo and other martial arts in Japan and China right after World War II and, on his return to the United States, became friends with Bruce Lee and other members of the then relatively small U.S. kung fu community. But later in life, Johnson became a born-again Christian and promptly rejected his martial arts past.
“These things are not from God,” he once said, referring to chi energy and the martial arts. “God is not in the business of mystical energies or the occult. I no longer practice the martial arts.… As a Christian, I cannot in good conscience, teach or recommend the martial arts to others.” (1) Johnson’s conversion under this mindset was a blow to the martial arts, for Johnson, the final grandmaster of Chinese wand exercises, took a great number of these exercises to the grave.
I’ve heard this sort of thing before from some Christians: The Eastern martial arts, chi kung, yoga, and meditation—and the energies they foster—are anti-Christian and even demonic. After reading Johnson’s statements, I decided to do a little research into the matter. A cursory look at the subject online confirmed that a great number of Christians do believe that these energies are corrupting at best and Satanic at worst.
These ideas were perfectly typified in 2010 when Reverend David Rhodes of the All Saints Church Hall in Totley, Yorkshire, England, forbade the church hall from being used for tai chi classes. The practice was, he said, anti-Christian. (2) Rhodes’ rejection, bland though it is, is merely the tip of a more treacherous iceberg. So, before I begin my evaluation, let me present the opinions of some Christians regarding these matters in their own words.
“By definition alone, the idea of chi is not compatible with the Christian faith,” one website states. “A foundational doctrine of Christianity is that God created all things through Jesus (see Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1-4). It is God who gives life, and by God, through Jesus, all things are sustained (see Psalm 147:9 and Colossians 1:16-17)…. Some may argue that chi is just a different term for the ‘life’ that God breathed into Adam (Genesis 2:7). But we can’t transplant the term chi into the Christian faith because the philosophy behind chi (Taoism) is also incompatible with Christianity. For example, the Taoist view of ‘God’ is that each person has his or her own definition of what ‘god’ is, and each definition is perfectly acceptable—neither right nor wrong. In the Christian faith, God is not defined by people’s perceptions. Rather, He reveals who He is to us (see Jeremiah 29:13-14). While God is infinite and beyond human understanding, He has revealed certain things about Himself and is able to be known personally. In Christianity, Jesus Christ is the only way to a real relationship with God (see John 14:5-7).” (3)
The website of the Christian Research Institute presents three views on the practice of martial arts by Christians:
“Because of its unchristian origin (Eastern mysticism), no martial art form should be practiced by Christians.”
“As long as the Christian divorces the religious aspects (Eastern mysticism) from the martial arts, he or she may practice them.” The site then goes on to list a number of martial arts and ranks them according to how easily one can “divorce the religious aspects” from them. Judo/jujitsu, karate, and tae kwon, all having a primarily physical rather than spiritual component, do make the cautious cut, but Aikido, kung fu, Ninjitsu, and tai chi are all too steeped in Eastern mysticism to be “safe” for the Christian.
“The martial arts are not compatible with Christianity because of their violent nature.” The author goes on to say that while self-defense is generally acceptable, Christians probably ought to turn the other cheek instead. (4)
The author then writes, “The Christian must realize that because this is a controversial area, he or she must be careful not to cause a weaker Christian to stumble by practicing a martial art (Rom. 14). Second, (primarily for youths), the Christian must guard against the temptation of starting fights. Third, the Christian should not allow a martial art to overshadow or detract from his Christian commitments.”
The Women of Grace organization has this to say in a blog titled, “Why Tai Chi and Catholicism Don’t Mix”:
“Tai chi is based on the existence of a life force energy that science has never been able to substantiate…. The belief that a life force energy pervades all of nature is known as pantheism and is not compatible with Christianity. The Pontifical Councils for Culture and Irreligious Dialogue called this impersonal energy force a ‘New Age god,’ in their document, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life…. ‘This is very different from the Christian understanding of God as the maker of heaven and earth and the source of all personal life.” (5)
The ironically named The Free Press website has an article titled “Tai chi: occult, dangerous and not for Christians—we answer our critics,” that reads: “[God] does NOT approve it! It is based on a pagan belief that ‘chi’ is a universal force. This is not true. There is no ‘chi,’ but the real force that holds the universe together is the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, who made everything and holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). So right there at the very foundations of tai chi, you have a lie.”
The text goes on to state: “The slow motion exercises of tai chi supposedly open pathways for the ‘chi’ energy to flow. This should set alarm bells ringing if you are a Christian! Why would you want to control some supernatural power and make it flow through your own body? This is absolutely not of God! If you do open a spiritual pathway, something might just come in!” (6) It should be noted that The Free Press website also has this headline on its front page: "Proof positive - the Catholic Church is not Christian! It is a counterfeit."
Yoga and meditation fare no better than tai chi or other martial arts, with the detractors using much the same arguments. And occasionally, the detractors are even harsher regarding Kundalini energy, which often is defined as serpentine. Considering how much Christians hate and fear the serpent, it’s no surprise that some consider Kundalini to be particularly Satanic and leading to demonic possession. (7)(8)(9)(10)
If you think you had a hard time reading these statements without your hackles rising, just remember: I had to type up this stuff. And I read even more. But now that the principle Christian arguments against esoteric energies and the practices that foster them are on the table, let me begin dismantling them.
1. Esoteric energies are not compatible with the Christian faith, the first quote above says, because God created all things through Jesus.
The writer cites Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1-4 to substantiate this statement, but unfortunately, neither passage mentions Jesus. They say that God is the one who did all that creating. This makes these passages useless as authoritative sources for this argument, even if one were inclined to take the Bible as literal history. So, I want to know if God personally told the writer that he doesn’t like chi energy, or if the writer is just assuming so, since the writer’s sources don’t back him up. And to claim that God only makes his will known through Jesus Christ is also to say that the Old Testament is not a reliable back-up for any argument since everything that transpires in it occurs prior to Christ’s birth, and he isn’t mentioned much in it. In addition, if all things (reality) were created by God, then he created chi as much as he did the heavens and the earth or plants and animals.
2. Chi is not the same as the God’s “breath of life.”
Well, first of all, was the writer present when God did that breathing? If not, then the writer does not really know the exact nature of that breath of life—or even what the term actually means—any more than he understands the nature of chi. But presumably, the writer means that God inspired the life of living creatures by investing in each of them a small measure of spirit. It seems to me that only an obtuse or exclusivist individual would argue that the breath of life imparted by the Tao is fundamentally different from the breath of life imparted by God. Both are synonymous with the life force imparted into mortal creatures by the unnamable, unknowable universal force behind, beneath, around, and through all of reality.
3. But some individuals insist that chi cannot be the same as God’s breath because Taoist philosophy has an unchristian origin and is not compatible with Christianity.
Right off the bat, this does not logically follow. Christians readily take advantage of modern science, technology, and medicine, none of which have a Christian origin and all of which are based on tenets that are largely incompatible with Christian beliefs. Further, though Christians might deny it, there can be more than one road to the same destination. In any case, Christianity, itself, has its roots in Judaism, which isn’t exactly Christian, either. And add the fact that Jesus disappeared into the desert—and very possibly traveled to the East, where he picked up some of those unchristian ideas that informed his belief system—and it seems that the first part of the writer’s argument fails since even Christianity is, at least partly, of unchristian origins.
Besides, there are a number of compelling parallels between the basic tenets of Christianity and Taoism. God is the supreme force, creator, and intelligence behind the universe, and he is unknowable. Likewise, the Tao is the supreme force, creator, and intelligence behind the universe and is also unknowable. And both God and the Tao accord humans free will to follow a path back to the creator force or to deviate from that path.
The principle difference is that Christians believe in a personal God who watches over every individual, while the Tao is much more impersonal and might not pay particular attention to any one person. But I have to say that, even if the Christian God does watch over us all individually, he rarely steps in to right wrongs, avert disaster, or relieve suffering. In fact, since all this stuff goes on all the time despite multitudes of prayers for relief, God seems just as remote as the Tao and not at all engaged with people on a personal level. But I suppose the Christian could assert that he feels the spirit of God within his breast. Guess what? Me, too, only I call it the Tao. And please don’t tell me that my sense of God is somehow bogus or inferior to yours, or I might level the same accusation at you.
For the Christian, God first separated the light and darkness and the heavens and the earth. Kind of seems to be the same thing as: The Tao moved, creating the yin and yang. From there, Adam (yang) and Eve (yin) populated the world, just as, in Taoism, the interplay of yang and yin created the many and diverse forms of reality. Certainly Adam and Eve can’t have been actual humans who physically procreated to produce the human race. I know that the arguments below are old, but if they need to be raised again to beat back old but persistent canards, so be it.
If Adam and Eve were the first people, and they produced only two sons, one of whom murdered the other, then that’s pretty much the end since Cain didn’t have a woman companion, and it takes two to raise little Cains. But, oh yeah, some Christians say that there were other people who helped generate more people, but if so, exactly where did those other people come from? If they were not Adam and Eve’s children but were created by God after he put the first couple on the earth, then they—and we—aren’t direct descendants of Adam and Eve and so should not have inherited their original sin. Assuming you inherit such things like you do your genetic makeup or cultural proclivities.
But the genesis of these other people isn’t in Genesis, and if the Bible is the final and ultimate authority, then all we have is Cain to begin the population explosion that’s now eating humanity alive. You can see the problem there. But let’s say that Adam and Eve did have other children who then populated the earth. That means that we are all, every one of us, the product of incest. It’s even a sort of parthenogenetic incest since Eve came straight from Adam’s rib. If humankind is cursed with original sin, it’s no wonder: We’re all inbred hillbillies. But if we’re all formed from Adam’s exact DNA, how come we don’t all look like Adam? And what about Eve? Did she look just like Adam since she was his clone? Or was that rib…different, somehow?
While Taoism does not adhere to the doctrine of original sin, there are further parallels between it and Christianity. Christ’s principles of peace and good will toward others, non-violence, and finding a true path to oneness with the creator are not fundamentally different from the tenets of Taoism. But Christian critics of chi energy use a mischaracterization of Taoism to bolster their argument. This mischaracterization is exhibited in the first passage above: “The Taoist view of ‘God’ is that each person has his or her own definition of what ‘god’ is, and each definition is perfectly acceptable—neither right nor wrong.”
This is, at root, false. In the first place, Taoism doesn’t encourage you to make up a concept of God or deity from whole cloth. Instead, it suggests a method—or way—to conduct one’s life in order to achieve oneness with the whole of creation—at the head of which, of course, must be God—or the Tao. Each person, being an individual, finds that “way” on their own and in their own way. I fail to see how this could be otherwise since humanity is clearly not just clones of Adam with identical DNA, nor are we possessed of an overt group mind, like some insects, that dictates specifics of internalized belief, behavior, and revelation. Each of us are different and must find what we seek—be it God or some lesser goal—on our own and through our own comprehension. I’m reminded here of the saying: Do what you can with what you’ve got.
And despite writing, “In the Christian faith, God is not defined by people’s perceptions,” the writer goes on to say, “Rather, He reveals who He is to us. While God is infinite and beyond human understanding, He has revealed certain things about Himself and is able to be known personally.” Isn’t that pretty much the same as finding your own personal understanding of or connection to God? If God is going to reveal himself to me—at least in small-enough measure that my dinky human psyche can withstand that revelation—how can I experience it other than with my perceptions? Revelation, like reality, can only be taken in via perception, otherwise it is a wind that we do not feel within the walls of our house.
And of course revelation is personal because it is a person who experiences it via their perceptions. And each person, being an individual, comes to an individual comprehension of revelation—his or her own definition of God. And seriously, is God going to falsify my perceptions of him? If there’s any falsification, it’ll come from my own weaknesses, foibles, ignorance, stubbornness, and so forth, all of which filter my understanding of God and his revelations into a personal understanding of deity. I’d bet that if you asked 10 Christians their exact definition of God, there would be some variance. Aren’t those variances manifestations of a revelation of God from a personal perspective? In other words, each of us—Christian, Taoist, or whatever—has a personal—and perfectly acceptable—definition of what God is.
Apparently the writer would not agree since he thinks he’s clenched it when he finishes: “In Christianity, Jesus Christ is the only way to a real relationship with God.” Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. Was Christ saying that you have to worship him as a deity in order to be saved, or was he saying that he knew the way to salvation (oneness with deity) and that he was willing to show others a way to travel that same path?
Call me a Gnostic (though I’d prefer Taoist), but from my experience, one can have a direct connection to the greater spiritual reality—call it God, the Tao, Allah, or whatever you want. But then, Christian churches have always been about hierarchy, permission, and limited access to deity. It’s a pay-to-play scheme that threatens eternal perdition for failure to adhere to religion’s all-too-human restrictions, no matter how good you are otherwise. After all, if everyone can have direct access to God—the Tao—who needs preachers or churches? Besides, I’m not quite so willing to damn the 99.999 percent of all the people who’ve ever lived who weren’t Christians and let Christians off the hook when they don’t seem to be superior in any way, including holiness, to anyone else.