Tai Chi and Ru’ach Elohim

thePsalmist on July 16th, 2010

This is a slight departure from my normal posts on here (as infrequent as they might be!). Normally I simply aim to work out my own exegesis of a passage of scripture which fits in with my preaching life. This post instead is focusing on a particular issue which has arisen via a discussion on twitter and something which is affecting more and more churches across the UK – namely the role of Tai Chi and whether it is compatible with the Christian faith.

The reason why this is an issue is simply because our national health service (NHS) and other community groups are adopting Tai Chi as a gentle exercise and relaxation technique. Ostensibly there is of course nothing wrong with exercise and relaxation, nor is there anything wrong with meditation if Tai Chi is taken to that level. Many churches are being asked if a community or NHS group can hire the church hall or church itself as a meeting place for Tai Chi to take place, and some are falling foul of the media and local residents if they refuse (http://bit.ly/cLMj2o , http://bit.ly/cSZa9e , http://bit.ly/bHDC8Z ). I myself as vicar of a church of England church have just been asked by an NHS group if they can put on a class for elderly people at risk of falling in our church. Nothing wrong with that … except that the class ends with a Tai Chi session (which they failed to mention in preliminary conversations).

So why the concern? And what are the questions?

Tai Chi, or to give it it’s full name: Tai Chi Chuan (meaning “Supreme Ultimate Fist”) is a chinese martial art, at least in its original form. The modern day practice of Tai Chi which is growing in popularity is seen as nothing more than a slow form of gentle exercise, and I dare say that for the vast majority of its practioners today, especially in the West, this is absolutely true. Certainly for the old ladies who would like to use our church halls, thoughts of “Supreme Ultimate Fist” and martial arts couldn’t be further from their minds.

The issue though is the philosophy and the metanarrative which Tai Chi rests upon. The physical movement of limbs is here wholly irrelevant – what matters is the spirit inherent in the belief system which directs and guides and gives shape and purpose to those movements, and the very name which hold them together. That is what we’re going to look at now.

Within the name “Tai Chi Chuan” the word which is most important for our consideration is the word “Chi”. It is this word which the whole system relies upon. It is not so much whether Tai Chi Chuan is compatible with Christianity but whether Chi itself is compatible with Christianity. And if not, then should churches be allowing Tai Chi classes in their places of worship and their meeting halls?

On twitter the brief discussion has been between myself and two other fellow Christians over whether we can accomodate Chi within the Christian belief system. I have been making the case that we can’t, they on the other hand have said they see no problem with it. So here I’m going to detail why I don’t believe it is helpful or right for Christians to talk about Chi as being present, real or legitimate in any way shape or form.

Their contention is that God has made all things, so God has made Chi as well. One even went as far as to link Chi with the Spirit of God, or perhaps the breath of life (which God breathed into Adam to bring him to life).

Chi is the belief system that throughout all of nature (trees, air, water, animals, insects, humans, …everything) a mystical energy force flows – this energy is known as Chi.

Every person has Chi flowing within them and illness, depression, ailments, peace etc etc are all reliant upon their Chi being balanced and ‘centred’. This is not an exercise in inidivualism though, this is an exercise in harmony with nature – our individual being becoming aligned with the rest of the natural world around us.

Many people will be familiar also with the concept of Feng Shui which is another practical outworking of eastern religions which relies upon Chi. In Feng shui it is not just natural things which contain Chi, but our living spaces – homes, offices, entire neighbourhoods all need to be styled, ordered and shaped to keep the flow of Chi balanced harmoniously.

Chi is in all things and flows through all things. It is about being highly interconnected, one thing with another – all things relying on each other for harmony and peace.

The school of thought/belief that this comes from is Taoism, a 2,000 year school of belief systems covering a wide number of specific belief systems (Zen Buddhism, Chinese Alchemy, Astrology, …). Taoism is a polytheistic (belief in many gods) religious system whose ultimate aim is not to lead the believer into the worship of one true God, but to lead the believer into a harmonious relationship with nature.

The nature of man within this system is that we are each a depiction of the whole universe, with various elements of our humanity representing the five major elements of nature (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). So man is a mini-universe – a subservient representation of the larger grander scheme of nature.

There is no creator in Taoism.

In Genesis 1-3 we read the story of creation. We read the story of a creator God who is the one true and living God. He alone is the eternal and majestic author of life. There are no other gods and nature is NOT the be all and end all – He is! The Alpha and the Omega – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Creation is created not to be the highest order of existence upon which man is modelled, but itself as the subservient framework for life within which mankind is placed to subdue and to enjoy. God makes the universe SO THAT mankind can have somewhere to live out their relationship, not with nature, but with God.

Man is made not in the image of nature, but in the image of God. Nature is not the crown of creation, but mankind is.
Is mankind interconnected with nature in all it’s forms, as the philosophy of Chi would have us believe? No, not at all. We see in Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

These elements are clearly in sharp contrast, no…contradiction, to the philosophy of Chi.

The question remains though, does Chi exist, and is it perhaps a mere mistaken outworking of Chi which has led to a false religion while leaving the presence of Chi perfectly fine for the Christian to accept albeit on Christian terms rather than Taoist ones.

Again I would say no. I would say there is no such thing as Chi. It doesn’t exist, it wasn’t created, it is not there.

What? There is no energy in the universe? Yes – of course there is energy in all places and everywhere. Einstein even worked out a wonderful equation which relates matter and energy, connecting all things within the created universe E=mc². To the layman this seems very much as though a case could be made for Chi. But I’m afraid this is where the layman would be talking very much out of trite naivity. Chi and a western concept of energy are chalk and cheese. Chi is a spiritual energy, part of the creative life force of the unverse – not merely the energy which we know and understand as that which boils water in a kettle when electricity is passed through a heating element. Chi is perhaps more familiar in the sense of the ‘force’ within Star Wars, that which gives the fantasy Jedi their powers.

Yet we can see Chi at work can we not, when we see martial arts experts at work. The force required to with stand huge blows, or in turn to deliver enormous and devastating blows is all about the channeling of Chi. The fingertip of the martial arts expert becomes the channeling point of chi from within their body and funneled into one small point.

Yes, here and in many other ways, we can see, witness, or even experience at first hand the power of Chi flowing through all things. I would simply say this – the philosophy behind Chi is so far removed from the orthodox Christian faith and the creation philosophy of the Bible that I am very happy to align these experiences of Chi as part of a false experience drummed up by Satan to lead more folk away from worshipping the Creator and focus them instead on the creation … just as he did in the garden of Eden when he caused Eve’s sight to be taken away from the truth of God’s word and focussed instead on all the delectable qualities of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3).

Satan wants nothing more than to corrupt the faith of the Christian and to blind the eyes of the world.  When Christians say “there is nothing wrong with believing in Chi and in doing Tai Chi exercises” I see there the subtle workings of Satan in encouraging us to use the language and philosophy and practical outworkings of a belief system which denies the creator and reduces mankind to something much less than the crown of all creation made in the image of God.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we read of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, the Ruach Elohim. This is in no way to be confused with Chi. This is the Holy Spirit which creates, whereas Chi is understood within taoism as part of the natural order. Yes Chi moves and forms, but it is not the originator of creation, for there is no originator – there is only balance – there is only yin and yang. In Christianity there was nothing and then there was God’s word which created (John 1). The Ruach Elohim is the  creative power by which all things are made, the breath of God spoken by the mouth of Christ at the will of the Father. It is not divorced from God, it …or rather He, IS GOD!

To link Chi with the Holy Spirit is utter blasphemy. The logical consequences of such a statement are either pentheism or panentheism – either of which fall well outside of the bounds of orthodox christianity.

The other option the Chi proponent could have, in a confused fashion, would be to pick up on the phrase “breath of life” in Genesis 2:7 (also Genesis 1:30, 6:17, and 7:15 for example). Here though again there is clear divergence between the philosophy of Chi and the nature of creation from a Biblical perspective. In Chi there is no limitation for what might contain it – trees have Chi in the same way as cows do. Within the Biblical record there is a very clear difference between framework for life and living creatures. Trees and seed bearing plants do NOT have the breath of life in them. Whereas cattle, living creatures, mankind all do. There is a different order of being.

Furthermore, mankind is not the same as the other animals which have the breath of life within them – only man is made in the image of God for instance and only man is commanded to subdue the earth. This subduing of creation at the behest of God the creator is totally opposed to the notion of harmony found within Taoism and necessary for Chi to be accepted as the energy force permeating and connecting all things.

So what then of the little old ladies wanting to do some relaxation and exercise. Should they be allowed into our church halls? And should Christians think of the universe and all creation as being permeated by this myterious force known as Chi?

The answer is a resolute No! The old ladies offer no threat. Their arms moving gently are innocuous. The opening of the door to a philosophy and a belief system so opposed to our Creator can not be compatible alongside a faith which preaches creator and which seeks to lift us above creation and place us as co-heirs with Christ. We can not allow anyone into our buildings and teach folk that they have a lifeforce called Chi flowing within then which needs balancing and channeling when the gospel calls us to call these same folks to be at one with the creator, and not the creation. It is the Spirit of God we want people to be in harmony with, not the spirit of eastern religion, and not the spirit of deception.

Balancing of Chi is to lead people to find an inner peace divorced from Christ, and yet we know that He himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).

Amen!

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Foolish Faith: James 2:14 – 2:26

thePsalmist on January 23rd, 2010

There is a real irony in the foolishness of the gospel though. In Proverbs foolishness was a very very bad thing:

“A foolish son bring grief to his father and bitterness to the one who bore him.” Proverbs 17:25

As Christians I think we can often bring a great deal of grief to God, and real bitterness into the heart of Jesus who bore us spiritually into this world and the next, by the utter foolishness with which we live out the gospel. A foolishness which isn’t like the foolishness Paul talks about in Corinthians, but is a foolishness in stark contrast to the gospel – a foolishness which seeks to hang on to the values of this world some measure, whilst also trying to claim the rights of heirs of God’s kingdom.

This passage from James is the fundamental reason for entitling this series “Inside Out and Upside Down”. This central passage in James’ letter is often seen as the pinacle of what the letter is all about, especially the famous opening verse:

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” James 2:14

And herein lies a big issue for our understanding of the Christian gospel. It is the most important of fundamental teachings of the Christian faith that there is absolutely nothing which we can do, by way of good deeds, to save ourselves. When Jesus was confronted by the rich young man, himself a fantatsic example of upright citizenship and religious obedience, he made the mistake of addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher”:

“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” Luke 18:18-19

Jesus challenged him not on his question but on his use of the word “Good”. He takes that opportunity to make the point in his ministry that there is no one who is good, not really, not compared to God! Our deeds, our religious observances, our niceness or perfect morality will not add up before God to making us “good” people worthy of His kingdom:

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24

ALL have sinned … and ALL are justified freely by HIS grace. Not one is justified by their own good deeds. Not one! Are we saved by our own merits? Nope! Are we able to convince God that actually we are quite holy and righteous after all? No! Was Christ’s sacrifice fully sufficient in and of itself to redeem my sinfulness? Yes, absolutely.

So why then does James bang on about our faith HAVING absolutely and necessarily to produce good works? Surely that is contrary to the Word of God? James’ most famous of passages here would appear to tread a dangerous line between the gospel of grace and the heresy of salvation by good deeds.

Well perhaps … and perhaps not. This is James at his very gospel centred best in truth. This is James at his hardest hitting, calling a spade a spade, inside out and upside down best. The gospel of grace is central and crucial, but the full impact of that grace on our lives is left without any doubts at all.

Back in Romans again we see Paul’s take on what effect the Gospel should have in our lives:

“12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spirituala act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” Romans 12:1-6a

Paul makes a bold claim here. Firstly that everything we now have and are are there by God’s own grace and mercy, and that secondly, in response we should give our whole lives to be living sacrifices to Him … thus to each other who we find in the body of Christ. Paul goes on and on turning our faith upside down, just like James, making out that who and what we are comes not from us but from God … or at least it should do. Our faith should be generating more stuff from above and a lot less from the world below. The stuff we exhibit in our lives should be the gifts from God to serve one another, he says, the stuff from Up there, being given to serve each other Down here. Upside Down.

God’s grace, love and mercy in action in the everyday. Our faith, so desperately held inside our hearts, worked out in the relaitonships we are part of and the community around us which we live in. Inside Out and Upside Down.

So James is able to say in the light of all this …”What flaming good is it you muppets if you reckon on God giving you a new life and yet you live it like the old one you had before? What point is it in believing in spiritual gifts which are given for the common good, but you don’t actually use any of them! What use is the church if it was created by Jesus to change the world and yet all it does is meet in relative comfort and isolation and cares not one jot for actually being out there with it’s sleeves rolled up?”

Well, he might have said that, had he lived amongst us these days.

Wr might believe every word of the Bible, but unless it is actually busy transforming our lives, our minds, our hearts, our values (as Paul would say perhaps), then it really counts for nothing. James drives the boot deeper into our backsides saying

“You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” James 2:19

Oh! And so he brings us to the issue of a foolish faith:

“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” James 2:20

Foolish Faith – a foolish faith is one for James which hasn’t even begun to grasp the reality of what that faith teaches, and yet professes to live by it nonetheless. To be honest, most people with any sort of faith have a foolish faith. I speak to many teenagers especially who would devoutly call themselves pagan, yet haven’t even begun to grapple with the true meaning of paganism … as they celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, live lives highly out of balance with nature and environmental concerns trashing the planet with their high-refuse generating, high-polluting, high meat-consuming diets. I speak to many more who profess to being convinced atheists whose atheism hasn’t even begun to be thought through, and who readily turn to prayer at the mereist whiff of trouble. And sadly I speak to so many Christians who live lives wholly divorced from the impact of the gospel on their lives, either through the outward engagement in living life the way the rest of the world lives their lives with decadence, loose morality, no morality, sexual misadventure, materialism … Or worse, the lack of love for their neighbours, the holding their faith quietly, the lack of service of others, the consumerism within the church. All of these things equally foolish for a people who have been supposedly transformed by the grace of God.

James raises before us a profound example, he talks about Abraham … a man who lived until a ripe old age of 90-odd without an heir, with no son to pass on both his worldly wealth and his faith in the true and living God Yahweh. Yahweh had promised Abraham a massive, world dominatingly large, eternal offspring … and yet he was now in old age and the promises of God looked hopeless. But God’s promise was good and Abraham’s equally aged wife bore him a son. No sooner was this son walking and talking though and God called Abraham to put his money where his mouth was. God said “You say you believe in me? Good! Now prove it! … take your son, who I promised you, and sacrifice him on an altar to me!”.

From that point on Abraham was living an inside out and upside down sort of faith. He was living a life which would have made James very proud. Abraham just quietly got on with the task of obeying God’s word, not making excuses and not theologising his way out of it. He gathered wood for a fire, took his son, some servants and headed out to the place God told him to go. He tied his son up, placed him on the wood and held out the knife ready to kill him. …And God said “STOP!”

Now that action, that readiness of Abraham was credited to him as righteousness. It’s the action of the body, it’s the words from the mouth, which truly show faith for what it is. If your faith in your heart is not causing you to sacrifice everything for God, who has sacrificed everything for you, then what sort of faith is it really?

If your faith has not enabled you to tithe sacrificially to God’s work in the church then what faith is it?

If your faith has not caused you to give up your time to serve others in the church and in the community, then really, does your faith truly mean anything in your life?

If your faith has not transformed you, how you think, how you talk, how you behave, …to be more like Christ, then is your faith really living and active and present in your life?

James finishes with these wise words:

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

And in so doing summarises just how he is able to tread that line between a heresy of salvation through works and the gospel of grace and mercy. James is saying that while the faith itself is one of grace, when it is active within us we should see transformation and real godly lifestyles emerging. A living and active faith will necessarily bring about such radical change in those who have accepted it for what it is, that they will not be able to help themselves in living out the fuitfulness of it. The love for the lost, the poor, the needy, … the proclamation of God’s word, truth, love, grace, mercy, … the sacrifice of material comforts for the sake of giving more to God and to those in need, … the study of God’s word and the time spent in prayer … All of these things and more will be evidenced by a life set on fire with a true and living faith in Jesus Christ.

Our God is a good God who loves us, but who loves us so much that He is wanting to transform our lives into something which is more like Him … and He is not tired of working among the needy, and He is not afraid of sharing who He is, and He has not had his turn to serve, or worried about money. He just is love!

Let us not give up meeting together!

thePsalmist on June 20th, 2009

I just love it when verses in the Bible appear to have been written for a specific occassion in OUR lives, rather than the lives of people 2000 years ago. This week saw one of those occassions.

In our deanery (that’s a collection of local CofE churches) we’re having a celebration in a week or two’s time. The idea is that we’re going to draw together all the churches in our deanery and the neighbouring one for an evening of food, music and sharing our good news stories of the stuff God is doing in our midst.

Trouble is … people are often very reluctant to bother going! It’s incredibly frustrating to be honest, and you wonder why people grumble about nothing nice to do, and then when they’re offered with something really lovely they can’t be bothered to go. Very weird!

So I went along to our neighbouring deanery’s synod meeting and shared my enthusiasm for the event and shared these verses:

Hebrews 10:24-25 ”And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

In our tough times in which we live churches are struggling. Round here in one of the toughest areas of the UK we live, work and worship amongst vast areas of deprivation. The people in our churches are hard pressed on every side. Financially, emotionally, practically … we face and endure hardship constantly. We hear a lot of talk of the UK being one of the richest nations in the world … well, round here it really doesn’t feel like it.

In terms of sizes of congregations too, our churches are small and struggling. Couple the small numbers, and the low incomes, with often incredibly high maintenance bills to pay on old historic church buildings and you see a picture emerging of real struggle and pain amongst God’s people.

So an opportunity to enthuse, inspire, encourage and simply edify the body of Christ in these parts is essential.

Paul was writing this in his letter to the Hebrews. They too were hard pressed on every side. They had their list of struggles and difficulties. And he recognised that somehow in the being together there was joy and blessing.

It is odd then that at times of great difficulty we seem never to really learn the lesson of the ages past that sharing our lives with others is GOOD! We tend to retreat into our own private and personal space. Our natural instinct appears to go against our basic needs. When times are tough we NEED each other, but we tend to not want others involved.

Let Hebrews 10:24-25 serve as a timely reminder to you that God made us to live in community and relationship with others. When God is working in one community of faith, the blessing can be shared amongst others too … but only through relationships with each other.

So knock down the barriers, kick down the walls, and reach out and enjoy the fruitfulness of being in relationship with the other churches around you. God is there too you know!