Giving pre-eminence to the other ‘teaching’ of eastern origin which speaks of the divine not as an impersonal force but as a personal God who sent his only begotten Son to be our Saviour
By Ian MacDonald
Yoga Tai Chi Reiki: A Guide for Christians
Brother Max Sculley DLS, Modotti Press
Connor Court Imprint rrp.$24.95
Slim’s the word for Max Sculley’s work. But it makes a stout case for prudence in relation to the three New Age practices of the title. Before moving to consideration of the text, however, the term New Age itself needs clarification.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines New Age as: ‘A philosophy of the late 1980’s centering on alternative medicine, astrology, spiritualism, animism and the like. Two notable phenomena of the period were New Age music, a type of gentle melodic music, combining elements of jazz, folk and classical music played largely on electronic instruments and New Age travelers, groups of latterday hippies who lead a nomadic existence travelling the country with their children and animals in ancient vehicles to set up camp at such spiritually significant sites as Stonehenge and Glastonbury. With the greatest respect to Brewer’s now into its 18th edition, it first having been published in 1870, this tends to foreshorten the scope of New Age while consigning it to the past.
A member of the De La Salle Brothers community, Max Sculley does not indulge a similar tendency. He makes clear the global reach of New Age and its financial profitability. The relative brevity of his text demonstrates that his 25-year commitment to adult education, mostly with Catholics but also on occasion with Protestants, means that he is so deeply across his research material that he can summarise it with forceful clarity.
At the core of his summary is the perception that neither Yoga, Tai Chi nor Reiki can be deemed more or less therapeutic disciplines or ‘energy systems’. Where they aspire to union with an impersonal force through ASC (Altered States of Consciousness), Christianity is centred on a personal, redemptive God.
Moreover the ‘energy systems’ cannot be detached from the philosophies that inspire them including Buddhism and Taoism. It is a perception based on interviews with a broad spectrum of people who took up the disciplines for health and business benefits only to find they led to underlying hazards that involved occult influences.
In recording this testimony, Sculley uses pseudonyms. But he abandons pseudonyms to discuss a number of clerics who attempted a merger of Catholicism and Yoga. Or vice versa: ‘Yoga has made significant entries into the Catholic Church. One movement was centered in India and the other in France, occurring almost simultaneously in the 1950’s.’
He goes on to discuss and dissect the work of the Benedictine Dom Bede Griffiths, who sought to combine Hindu yoga with Christianity, and the French monk Jean Marie Dechanet who tried to divorce yoga from its Hindu roots and establish a purely Christian variety.
He moves then to three American Trappist monks, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington who ventured on a similar quest to unify Eastern philosophies and practices with Christianity.
Merton was by far the most celebrated of the trio. Max Sculley evaluates him with respect for his views on Japanese Zen techniques but makes his disapproval clear in a style applicable to other would-be unifiers: ‘One of Merton’s major errors was to confuse a mind-emptying human technique with Christian contemplation which is always a grace of God.’
In support of this view, Max Sculley turns to the then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XV1) who issued a letter to all Catholic bishops, On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.
The letter provided for Christians seeking to fuse Zen, Transcendental Meditation or Yoga with Christian prayer. Max Sculley cites one passage verbatim: ‘Still others [Christians] do not hesitate to place that absolute without images or concepts which is proper to Buddhist theory on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ which towers above finite reality.’
The letter went on to quote the Pope of the time John Paul II : ‘...the call of Teresa of Jesus advocating a prayer completely centred on Christ is valid even in our day against some methods of prayer which are not inspired by the Gospel and which in practice tend to set Christ aside in preference for a mental void which makes no sense in Christianity.’
No doubt John Paul II included in Christ-centred prayer meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary and the stations of the cross.
Max Sculley provides an invaluable glossary of New Age terminology. Perhaps the most positive aspect of his work is that while dismissive, it fills the gap it has made.
He cites a DVD described as ‘A Christian Alternative to Yoga.’ Its author is an American Fitness Specialist who gave up New Ageism for Christianity. Max Sculley quotes her: ‘I was looking for a gentler form of exercise. I’d been doing aerobics, and I wanted to do some stretching and strengthening exercises, but I wanted absolutely nothing to do with yoga...’
The result was ‘Praise Moves’ – a set of 21 postures ‘each animated by a passage of scripture. For example, the Eagle posture is accompanied by the speaking aloud of this verse; “ Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings of eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
In sum, the book is a marvel of concise writing; not only does it analyze the title subjects, but it gives them their context in the philosophies of China, India and Japan, and while respectful of these philosophies, gives pre-eminence to that other teaching of eastern origin which speaks of the divine not as an impersonal force but as a personal God who sent his only begotten Son to be our Saviour.
The work deserves to be widely circulated among teachers, clergy and religious, particularly those who deem Yoga, Tai Chi and Reiki totally compatible with the practice of Christianity.
Annals Australasia November/December 2012.
MacDonald is the pen-name of a well-known Sydney journalist