Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Why not Christian martial arts?

I debated with myself about whether to post this at Nathan’s place or at mine, since it is likely controversial. I figure to post it here to get Nathan some traffic, but be aware these are my ideas and not Nathan’s. If you want to play nice and post comments, you‘re welcome to do it here, but if you want to vent or rant, direct it at Mokuren Dojo, not here.
A while back, Bob Patterson at Striking Thoughts posted an interesting and thoughtful article about Christian martial arts organizations. He thought it was disturbing and incongruous (I hope I'm paraphrasing him correctly) to express Christianity and martial arts in the same venue. Interestingly enough, he seems comfortable combining eastern philosophy and martial arts. Now, all that’s fine. Everyone has opinions and blogs are all about expressing and discussing them. I just wanted to add…
Why not a Christian martial arts organization?
Dojo Rat commented in that post and some others that the closed-minded and exclusive attitudes of some Christians make him mad. I’d like to respond to that.
First, DR is a thoughtful guy, and his comments did not smear all Christians, and for that I’m grateful. I did find it curious though that DR would be angry about being excluded from a group he wouldn’t want to be a part of anyway (closed-minded evangelical fundamentalists).
Second, there are some Christians who feel that their faith is threatened by worldly things like martial arts and there are other Christians who do not feel threatened by the world. In Romans (I don’t have the verse right on the top of my head) Paul talks about food restrictions and says it’s okay for some groups to have restrictions to protect their faith. Groups that do not feel threatened do not need those same restrictions but they do not need to use their personal freedom to tempt or taunt the folks that do need those restrictions.
The same is true for martial arts. I figure the folks who feel threatened by the eastern cultural and philosophical and religious associations can still benefit from martial arts training under a more familiar context.
Also, Joanna at Martial Taichi (http://www.martialtaichi.co.uk/) has taken some heat on several of our blogs lately for her comments about divorcing taichi from the potentially spiritually dangerous (from her perspective) parts, like qi (ki) and trance. My question there is, if you can have evangelical zen martial artists or evangelical taoist martial artists or even fundamental muslim martial artists (and they are perceived as cool), why not evangelical Christian martial artists?
Y’all bear in mind I love and respect all of you. Now, have at it and play nice in your comments.


Dojo Rat said...

Hi Pat and TDA readers, perhaps I should make my point more clearly since my opinion is mentioned in this post.
First: I have nothing against the precepts of Christianity, any more than the Jewish religion, Bhudism or Islam. I also consider myself somewhat spiritual. I am against "Blind" Fundementalism much like "Blind Patriotism.
I have never said I do not think that martial arts can not fit into a Christian ideology. For example, I think that The (Crusade era) Knights Templar were a unique and powerful Christian Martial Organization. Their re-discovery of the Gnostic teachings of the original Christians, their discovery of the wealth in the caverns below Soloman's temple, and their consolidation of wealth through the first banking system, their knowledge of sacred geometry that created the great cathedrals-- All these things put them at odds with the Dogma of the Church that has been created or fabricated since Constintine's time. They were persecuted for their knowledge of the Gnostic self-enlightenment of the people that actually followed Jesus in his time. For that, the Pope had them tortured to death.
My criticizm is with the inherent hipocracy and the striving for external political power in the Mega-Churches. I have no problem with Christians as martial artists.
Thanks for the post, I hope this does not veer to far from your topic, --D.R.

Patrick Parker said...

Thanks for jumping in there, DR. Interesting history that you mention there.

I think youre right, that evangelical Christianity has, especially over the last generation, gotten too wrapped up in external politics. I don't think that separation of church and state is intended to protect the state from the church, but vice versa. Whenever the church allows itself to be drawn into nationalism, etc... it is in danger of becoming a ward of the state.

This seems to go in waves, where for a while the church embraces politics and for a while it returns to things spiritual. This happened throughout the middle ages.

Reminds me of an interesting novel I read. The Revolt, by (i think) Jesse Wise Bauer. The premnise is that some modern-day fundamnetalists get hold of the government of Virginia and secede successfully from the Union, drawing several states with them into a theocracy based on old testament law. Well, I hate to spoil the end if you want to read it, but the theocracy falls apart because of the sinful nature of the people involved.

Anyway, I don't think this veers too far, DR ;-)
thanks for the commentary.

BSM said...

Good post Mr. Parker. I go back and forth on this one (part because one of the masters in our accrediting body is also a baptist minister and a darn nice guy). Generally speaking I have no issue with Christian martial arts. I guess where the issue starts is when they totally Christianize it and lose some of the particular art's heritage, culture, history, etc. True that nobody owns the "martial arts" and that nobody can stop you from doing this. However, it just doesn't seem right to me. Also, not all Christian martial arts do this (some are good about giving a nod to history, culture, etc). In fact, I could make the same criticism of "American martial arts" and the dilution that sometimes happens. I think it's just a matter of where the line is drawn and how much of the original source you take out of the art.

No easy answers I suppose when it comes to religion or politics.


Patrick Parker said...

Absolutely right, Bob. There are no easy answers in religion and politics. Some folks (maybe all of us) like to sometimes say that we are not going to be involved in politics, but that's hard, if not impossible, for anyone who thinks about things.

One of the Heritage Foundation reports on Social Studies education says in the intro that the original meaning of the word 'idiot' is someone who is not interested in politics. In a recent post on 24 Fighting Chickens, they state the opinion that it is impossible to not be involved in politics because everyone is interested in who has social power (ability to make things move) and how that power flows.

I think the same is true for religion. Anyone who thinks about things eventually has to start thinking about metaphysical or spiritual issues.

I particularly enjoy your blog for the same reason I enjoy Dan Paden's 'No blog of significance' because y'all have managed to fold your religious and political and martial arts thinking into the same blog. I try to keep my blogs separate, though they overlap frequently.

Joanna said...

I just wanted to comment on the Gnostic / early Christian link. The Gnostic sect was heretical from the start and the early Christians were very much at odds with their perspectives. Many ideas crept in to the Judeo Christian worldview, not least from Greece, and some of them changed the original Judaic concepts quite dramatically.

The world, according to the Gnostics, was created not by a loving creator God, but by "the demi-urge." This somewhat mystical Greek idea declared that the physical world was an entrapment for an immortal soul. Ideas of heaven and hell replaced the Judaic belief in sheol - the land of the dead. Being consigned to the scrap heap outside Jerusalem (gehenna) for not being part of the establishment of God's Kingdom on Earth, became replaced with notions of an immortal soul spending eternity in hell (or heaven).

Regarding Christianity and martial arts being at odds, I think it is important to remember that after the temple incident, Jesus told his disciples to arm themselves with swords and if they didn't have one to sell their cloak and buy one! Turning the other cheek is a commandment not to lash out in vengeance, but Jesus evidently had no problem with people being able to defend themselves when their lives were in real danger.
Finally, I think it is important that atheist / secular / "spiritual" people do not get to condemn all devout religious believers as "blind" fundamentalists. Religions have definite moral codes - to observe them is not blind. To suggest that it is, is to (ironically) impose a dogmatic moral belief that all absolute morality is morally wrong and only relative morality can be tolerated.

Aside from the innate hypocrisy of this tenet, this view allows society to become increasingly liberal (and decadent) as no prohibitions that everyone can agree on are tolerated, and secular liberals don't have many prohibitions anyway as self-centred freedom is taken for granted as a (human) right. The world becomes a pleasure park ripe for human plunder. I don't think this constitutes responsible custodianship. Human beings have a disproportionate amount of power and it is time we took on a proportionate amount of responsibility that went beyond trying to save the planet by the skin of its teeth when things start going seriously awry.

As the subject of "blind fundamentalism" came up...

Joanna said...

To directly address the question, I would say that if you want to christianise your martial arts practice, you should go for it.

Alternatively, you could choose to practice a martial art that is already coming from a Christian tradition (systema, eskrima, western boxing...) but why should you have to? You do not need to turn Shinto or Buddhist to drive a Japanese car. Martial arts are just a tool.

Willem DeThouars, Bob Orlando, Steve Gartin etc. practice Silat / Kuntao from a devoutly Christian perspective, and their art has not suffered for it in the least. Rather, I would say, they have managed to condense what is useful from several traditions without being unnecessarily ensnared in unnecessary cultural baggage.

What would a non-Christian do if they learned a Chinese martial art from a Chinese Christian? Would anyone expect them to become a Christian then? Would they be expected to pray to God? No. However, it is generally assumed that people will take on Buddhist, Daoist or Chinese folk religious spiritual ideas if they learn in such an environment.

I firmly believe that polytheistic and animistic spiritual notions, along with ritual aspects are all detrimental rather than helpful to developing martial skill and may be omitted at will. If you wish to bring in a Christian element than you are free to do so, but I personally prefer martial arts practice to be taught in a genuinely multi-faith environment. I prefer my martial practice to be secular but actively welcoming to people from monotheistic faiths, rather than the strange blend of evangelical atheist / animist / pagan / "spiritual" / "traditional" practice that prevails in the West at the moment. The current environment does actually exclude devout practitioners from faith backgrounds who are not prepared to turn a blind eye to prohibited ritual practices.

Anonymous said...

Walk into any of the big MA chain stores (or "dojos" as they are called), and you'll see a celebration of escapist fantasy. Why doesn't Christianity fit in here? Because it is not exotic enough, that's all.

Joanna said...

Great point.

Joanna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Joanna, I'm not sure why you posted a comment referring to "Weakness with a Twist" or a post titled "A Parade in India 15 Miles Long" here on TDA. Is this somehow related to this TDA post? Perhaps it was posted here accidentally? Either way, this isn't the place to resolve this type of dispute or disagreement, nor is it related to this post, "Why not Christian martial Arts?", so it's being deleted. If there's some reason that I should know about that I'm not getting, please let me know via email. Thanks- Nathan

JoseFreitas said...

In general, I think that this is mostly a problem for the Christians than to anyone else. If you ask me "Why not Christian MAs?" you'd get this dumbfounded look in my face. Why not Shintoist or Buddhist or Korean or Sikh or Mauritanian, for all I care? Everyone adapted the stuff to their own ideology, why not Christians? I don't think there is anything inherently sacred in any of the non-martial tenets of MAs to make this a question of life or death. In Asia, everywhere MAs were adapted to specific religions. We may argue which religion got where first, which adapted to which, but in Indonesia there are Daoist and Muslim and Animist martial arts that share roughly similar curriculums.

I would not think that the religion of the teacher is really that germane to the stuff that he is teaching (in the case of something as practical as MAs). Maybe to the way he teaches it. There is nothing inherently religious about the nuts and bolts practical problems of slitting a throat or sticking a dagger in the ribs or applying a wrist-lock or kicking out a knee, beyond the general fact that some sort of ethical guidelines seem to be a good idea when you're teaching people how to hurt someone else. MAs are layered with lots of other stuff, but I also believe it's eminently adaptable, and some of it might probably be seen as non-denominational, and we wouldn't be having this conversation if we were talking of carpentry ("Why not a Cahristian Carpenter's Union?"). If you subscribe to the idea of Qi, there are tons of ways of adapting it to any religion, or even to no religion (ie like the Maoists did).

I can see situations where the messenger might layer the message with some of his own religion. Most students are probably free to either, one, forget about the ideology as soon as they leave the class, because they recognize it as irrelevant to the practice of MAs, or two, go shop for another school.

The question "Why not Christian MAs?" seems to me to have other assumptions behind it, since it seems to say that the ideology of the messenger has a strong influence on the message. It reminds me of a (totally scientifically uneducated conservative) friend, who once asked me in all seriousness whether I really thought there was anything to this "general relativity thing", given that Einstein was a known commie.

Training in Karate doesn't mean I am chauvinistic, ultra-patriotic, fascist militaristic racist warmonger, as most creators of modern Karate certainly were (and Karate was in fact created to be able to serve just that ideology, or to benefit from it, in its modern version). My first karate teacher was a communist, who studied philosophy and Lacan at the Sorbonne. He was a direct student of Sensei Murakami in Paris, and got along very well with him, despite the fact that Murakami was an incorrigible right wing fascist.

So, in general I would say that when someone asks this question he is saying that whether the art is taught by a Christian or a (XXX whatever) makes a big difference to the practice of the MAs. I am not saying that ritual or belief or whatever doesn't have power, perhaps even beyond its psychological power (ie not just in a person's mind), but I am pretty sure that at the level of taking MA classes, it probably doesn't. And people who think so are obviously free to make up their own Christian classes. I wouldn't do it, I am not really a Christian, and even if I were, I think I could easily reconcile Christianity with the practice of an asian martial art, but why not a Christian martial art?

By the way, I STRONGLY agree with Joanna's opinion on the mess that we're in, and I'm convinced it comes from a lack of, for want of a better definition, moral education (I just don't think it necessarily has to be Christian).

Joanna said...

Thanks Jose - I think what I'd really like to see is interfaith advisory groups working with governments. A consumer-driven materialistic society is bad news for the moral dimension.