Defending the indefensible

18 02 2010

I will go ahead and curmudgeonly indulge in saying that I don’t know reiki from saki. But a recent segment on Religion and Ethics News Weekly (a show that I watch, often while wincing), brought up many issues that I have addressed on this blog and elsewhere regarding the nature of religion, metaphysics, and healing. In the battle between un-habited New Age nuns and the U.S. Council of Bishops, in unlikely fashion I am coming to the defense of the nuns. It’s not that I like ambient music, fancy Asian energies, or liberal religious who seem to just need a good old fashioned Baltimore Catechism brainwashing session. I rather dislike all of these things, actually, but I dislike a-historical metaphysical rationalism even more, and bishops are not high up on my list either.

I leave it to the reader to read or watch this segment, and look into reiki as needed on such reliable sources as Wikipedia. Just watching the video, and hearing them speak about their discipline, these healers conjured up in my mind too many images of sobadoras, curanderas, and various espiritistas of Latin American lore. True, we are working in two different realms, and I would no more assume the orthodoxy of these wayward nuns as I would assume the heterodoxy of Spanish American folk healers. One comment by a defender of this discipline could extend to a whole host of various disciplines in the “folk Catholic” world:

Some people, I think, find comfort in the perceived security of a black and white theology, and Reiki doesn’t fit within that black and white theology, and so in those kinds of situations there tends to be judgment, there tends to be fear, there tends to be reaction.

“Black and white theology”: I have long been at enmity with such cut-and-dry explanations of things, especially when it comes to unseen forces. Indeed, my own fascination tends to get stuck on all of the good Catholic gooey stuff that is stuck between “good” and “evil”: la Santa Muerte, neutral angels, fairies, duendes, and so forth. This doesn’t even mention the intellectual obsessions of such figures as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola for forces from the stars that would affect the well-being of the body and the human spirit. In a lot of ways, the following criticism of reiki could easily be turned against a number of Catholics of yesteryear, from Popes who had their horoscopes cast to old grandmothers using drops of olive oil to detect the evil eye:

God is God, and human beings are human beings, and we can petition God, but we can’t manipulate him, and we felt that this was what was happening in the context of Reiki, that the person learned how to be in touch with the divine cosmic forces such that they could now manipulate it through a laying on of hands or a massage or something that the person could be healed.

I would be the first to admit that there is Patristic and Biblical backing for this reasoning, but, historically speaking, it also leaves quite a bit out. On this, I would refer you to the work of such scholars as Ioan Couliano in which the “cleaning up” of the Western cosmos is systematically described. The absolute division between the licit quantitative manipulation of reality (known today by the term, “science”) and magic is a historically conditioned one, and it has been far from hegemonic, at least in “unofficial” circles. As I have said before, people have been employing what we would call “magic” since Adam, and to issue a blanket condemnation of it throws the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. Magic is as Catholic as the Pope or the Friday fish fry.

For centuries, Catholic healers have been using herbs, eggs, water, statues of saints, and their bare hands to heal and cast out evil. My advice to the nuns (other than to put on a habit) would be to say a few Hail Marys before their reiki sessions. Maybe then, if the bishops will not turn a blind eye, at the very least they could claim membership in a long line of questionable pious old ladies who pissed off the local clergy with their homemade Catholic healing. And that would at least put a smile on my face.


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41 responses

1 03 2010
+Wulfila

Far be it from me to tell you that you ought to become a good Vatican II Catholic, Arturo – which is not to say that I think individual Catholics are unreasonable to conclude that doctrines propounded by bishops speaking in council (and thus exercising legitimate magisterium) are acceptable doctrines for Catholics to hold, and to believe/act accordingly.

1 03 2010
Arturo Vasquez

There is no doctrine of Vatican II that is binding on Catholics, or even arguably a good idea.

1 03 2010
+Wulfila

Yes, but it’s that the doctrine of Vatican II leads naturally to that one point and there are episcopal conferences that are explicitly willing to embrace it that I’m talking about. It’s a pretty natural consequence of giving up the idea of extra ecclesiam nulla salus – if people outside of the Church can be saved through the anonymous action of the H.S., it simply has got to be the case that elements of their religion and culture are vehicles of the inspiration of the H.S. and therefore iconic rather than idolatrous. When I was an undergrad and well before I knew about RC teachings about non-Christian religions, my honors thesis was on a genre of OT literature called “idol polemic” (my verbal prophetic icon comes from GOD and is SYMBOLIC and your material icon of divinity is DEMONIC and you worship STONES!) so this has been bothering me a very long time. The contemporary RCC is the answer to the problem, even if it has other problems.

1 03 2010
Agostino

I can definitely respect that, and most of the document that I’ve read so far (I’ve not finished the whole thing) seems to be based on common sense. It’s just the “it’s okay to pray to other gods, sort of” concept that’s rubbing me the wrong way.

Reflecting on it, though, that’s likely what the majority of Christians did in practice during the the persecutions of first few centuries of the Church’s existence, and it’s probably not much different in any time or place where Christianity is a minority religion; martyrdom isn’t an easy thing to bring oneself to do in any generation. Yet while the Fathers counselled the faithful against burning that grain of incense, here we have a bishops’ conference it’s okay if the faithful do the exact opposite. We’re raised with stories of the Martyrs and they’re often the main heroes in Catholic culture, which my comment that such counsel flies in the face of Catholic sensibility.

So I’m really not attacking the document at all, just criticizing that one point.

1 03 2010
Ed H

Wulfila, if you disagree with Agostino, it is because you are not Catholic enough. He said so himself.

It’s the kind of rhetorical move which should strike any rational being with so much as an once of rationality as sleazy to say the least, and symptomatic of complete bankruptcy of actual ideas to say the worst.

1 03 2010
+Wulfila

Documents like that are the specific reason I converted to Catholicism.

1 03 2010
Agostino

I went and read all of section 88 (which refers to inter-religious prayer meetings in particular), and I have to agree with Christina. It’s one thing to attempt not to offend someone else’s religion (which seems to be a major thread running through the document), but to prayer to other people’s deities, whether through hymns, litany, or outright evocation/invocation, goes way outside the boundaries of acceptable Christian belief and behavior. Last time I checked, it had to do with something called the First Commandment.

In fairness, though, I recognize that the section in question is not telling Catholics that they need to pray to deities other than Adonai, but that, as I understand it, it is simply saying that it is permissible, in the context of viewing these prayers as prayers to the one God the Father — which sounds a lot like Gareth Knight saying that all pagan deities are merely different aspects of the one true God, or Neopagan authors such as D. J. Conway saying that all deities are merely aspects of “the Goddess” — insofar as the individual’s conscience is able to handle it. This smacks of straight relativism (praying to other gods is okay relative to whether you see them as reflections/emanations/aspects/or merely different names of the One True God), and so I find that I still have to agree with Christina.

I’m not trying to be rude here, but this is just one of those things that any Catholic with so much as an ounce of catholicity would find viscerally objectionable to say the least, and outright blasphemous to say the worst.

26 02 2010
christina

>88: prayers using the name of Hindu gods are fine, and you shouldn’t worry about scandalizing other Christians when you use them because “Christian consciousness is growing in this area and a certain degree of shock-therapy need not always be ruled out”.

If someone said that about nuns in leotards dancing up the aisle of the church, we would find that objectionable. How much moreso with the introduction of prayer to pagan gods? Some of the other points that document makes are okay by me, but I can’t countenance that one.

24 02 2010
+Wulfila

http://www.cathnewsindia.com/2010/02/24/ashram-priest-trains-filipinos-to-heal-poor/

While the US hierarchy goes into convulsions over Reiki, the Asian Catholic hierarchy promotes yoga (pranas bear a more-than-superficial resemblance to qi/ki) and herbal healing. Let’s move!

24 02 2010
A Sinner

I sympathize with what you say, Arturo. Just don’t despair.

But the point about the bishops dismissing alternate medicine (though I personally think it’s a crock) as “superstition” just because it isn’t Western science is a good one. Why must it be “superstition”?? Even if we don’t personally believe in it, couldn’t it just be “bad science” rather than “superstition”. I mean, unless explicit invocation of demons is involved. But why ban it just because it mentions Saints or whatever. I mean, don’t they believe our universe is one where Saints exist and affect things? I say, if you’re going to dismiss alternative medicine (and, personally, I do)…dismiss it as bad science, but not as “superstition”. Most of these systems believe that their causations are, in fact, part of the natural order. Even if in their “natural order”…the spiritual is more organically and seamlessly united with the material.

And the part about not caring anymore about the bishop said, about “proof texting” is a good one. If more people learned that lesson, maybe we’d have (for example), priests saying the Old Mass in a hieratic vernacular ala the Anglican Missal. Maybe we wouldn’t have all this endless talk about the “true meaning” of Vatican II (which I think is a cognitively meaningless question anyway). Maybe people would just practice their religion, THEIR religion, without this constant guilt and fear that some micro-manager is looking over their shoulder making sure they’ve dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s

23 02 2010
Food for Thought « Agostinal Reflections II

[…] is a comment that Arturo Vasquez made on a post on his blog, that had me rolling on the floor laughing.  For the most part, I tend to agree strongly with a […]

21 02 2010
+Wulfila

Isn’t there debate about what Origen got condemned for? (I tried to research it once and got a really, really serious headache). But that sure does seem like one of the more likely options.

21 02 2010
Sam Urfer

Hmmmm, interesting. Thanks for the info!

Good luck on the exams. St. Anthony, pray for us!

21 02 2010
Sam Urfer

As far as I understand the traditional Christian system, there is no such thing. All angels are already saved or already damned, by their free choice. There is no hope for the fallen angels. The idea that the fallen could ever be redeemed was one of Origen’s propositions which won him the Papal prize for literature (condemnation).

21 02 2010
+Wulfila

I trade in interfaith borrowing that’s much more overtly religious than Reiki, but that information might be helpful because if you can fine-tune the Asian hierarchy’s attitudes towards that (presumably less acceptable) material you can get an idea of how they might react to something more innocuous like Reiki.

I have my first comprehensive exam tomorrow so I’ve got to keep this short. (Please pray for me, by the way!) But if you’d like to know more I might be able to expand laterJHe if you ask.

Here’s a scanned document from the Indian hierarchy:

Click to access guidelines-for-interreligious.pdf

Highlights:

64-67: prayer and lectio divina may draw upon other religious books (specifically mentioned: the Bhagavad Gita, Quran, Upanishads, Adi Grantha, Sufi poets and bhaktas, Tagore’s Gitanjali, Manickavasagam, and Mirabai)

67: Yoga, Zen, Vipassana (Theravada Buddhist meditation), Namajapa (reciting the names of God as a mantra), and “traditional religious symbols” are recommended for bringing Christians closer to God.

82-96: guidelines for inter-religious prayer

84: distinguishes between the inner meaning/intention and outward cultural trapping of a prayer and says that it’s fine to use pagan prayers so long as the inner intention of the prayer is not dis-consonant with Christianity, which one would know if it is one whose “main purpose” is “to control and manipulate Divine Reality”. It (correctly) notes that in an Indian context social participation in other people’s religions is generally not taken to mean you’re abandoning your own tradition so scandal is unlikely. (Hindus often participate in Muharram to commemorate the death of Hussein and Muslims often participate in Diwali etc.)

86: mentions symbols and forms of prayer and liturgical action recommended for interreligious prayer

88: prayers using the name of Hindu gods are fine, and you shouldn’t worry about scandalizing other Christians when you use them because “Christian consciousness is growing in this area and a certain degree of shock-therapy need not always be ruled out”.

97-100: it’s OK to participate in non-Christian rituals of a “secular” character such as Diwali and a bunch of others no one would ever think were actually secular. (“Secular” in India means something different than it does here). Visits to mosques and other holy places should not be “of merely tourist interest” but involve a religious comportment and gestures of respect such as covering one’s head, removing one’s shoes, etc.

101-102: it’s OK to use and reinterpret non-Christian religious symbols (including gods/goddesses) privately as inculturation but not in a social context where people can be offended.

102-103: Complicated stuff, comes down to individual prudential judgment mitigated by the desire to avoid causing the non-Christian party scandal and the standing norms in one’s diocese.

In practice these mean that just about anything is considered OK. I know some Jesuits in India who are working it out so I might be able to do darshana to Sri at Srirangam, which is a pretty conventional thing there. (The hangup is on the Hindu side – I have to use personal connections to get permission from the temple priesthood to visit certain areas).

***

Here are some guidelines on ancestor veneration and other “superstitious” practice from the Archdiocese of Singapore:
http://www.catholic.org.sg/liturgy/bulletins/7%20-%20Ancestors%20Veneration.htm

Summary:

Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits won the Chinese Rites controversy after all.

21 02 2010
A.

What about those angels that will be reconciled to Heaven in a general apocatastasis?

21 02 2010
Sam Urfer

The classical answer is that angels and demons are not temporal beings. Being outside of time, they exercised their free will to align themselves for or against God completely. And trust me, this has been expanded upon in the past, if you look for it.

21 02 2010
Sam Urfer

Would you happen to have, or know where one could find, information on the Chinese or other Asian bishops approaches to these matters? That could be most…enlightening.

21 02 2010
+Wulfila

Tap me on the virtual shoulder if I forget to send it within a couple of weeks (wulfila at fastmail dot fm). I’m totally crazy cramming for comprehensive exams on Monday. I’m a South Asianist so I’m sure you know a lot more about Chinese religions than I do and it would be a very interesting conversation.

PS: I’m not really an Arian bishop, I just play one on TV – er, the internet!

21 02 2010
Anthony

Wulfila, we are no doubt in the same book. Not sure about the same page — my Christology is not Arian, after all. 😉

The article sounds interesting. My knowledge of (Chinese) folk Buddhism is almost entirely from firsthand observation. You can email me at anthony dot f dot roberts at gmail dot com.

20 02 2010
The Shepherd

“If the inward power that rules us be true to Nature, it will always adjust itself readily to the possibilities and opportunities offered by circumstance. It asks for no predeterminate material; in the pursuance of its aims it is willing to compromise; hindrances to its progress are merely converted into matter for its own use. It is like a bonfire mastering a heap of rubbish, which would have quenched a feeble glow; but its fiery blaze quickly assimilates the load, consumes it, and flames the higher for it.
~ Marcus Aurelius-Meditations

20 02 2010
+Wulfila

Anthony:

It sounds like we’re on the same page, or at least in the same book!

If you’re ever interested in reading something completely off-topic here, I’d be happy to send you an essay of mine that’s going to be published about how Beat Buddhism (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, etc.) is simply the Western equivalent of popular Buddhism and cultural phenomena such as “Dharma Bums” and the “Hippie Trail” were a kind of pilgrimage experience. You’d be surprised at how little scholarly attention Western incarnations of Asian religions have gotten because of general contempt for the people interested in it – be they Beats, Hippies, New Agers, Goths, or what not. Scholars mysteriously forget their usual rules (popular religion matters, not just the official elite version) the second a Western counter-cultural group is involved.

Arturo:

You, sir, may have just single-handedly cured my scrupulosity – something no priest, spiritual director, or psychologist has ever gotten close to accomplishing!

20 02 2010
Anthony

Wulfila:

Granted. These kinds of traditional practices evolve all the time and in all different directions. (Another example: Buddhism as Westerners know it is completely different from the Buddhism as most Asians experience it, which is more like the folk religion Mr. Vasquez chronicles on this blog.) I still think that taiji practitioners in the U.S. tend to learn poor taiji and be generally flaky (New Agey) about the whole thing.

20 02 2010
+Wulfila

Anthony:

OK, you’ve persuaded me that’s a significant difference. (Though for methodological reasons I still wouldn’t want to entirely write off contemporary taiji as somehow less authentic than taiji in the past, as if I had to think it wasn’t “really” taiji if it introduced new-fangled developments about qi which would have mystified earlier practitioners).

20 02 2010
Tom

Of course, Arturo. As was the super-wealthy Cardinal who defended the faith, ordering the burning of heretical books while living in pomp with a mistress or two. As were the women – rich and poor – who employed the services of herbalists to “restart” their mysteriously “interrupted” menstrual periods. As were the purveyors and exploiters of false relics.

So it always has been.

20 02 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Ya know, I’ve been thinkin’ and…

I am quickly coming to the conclusion that I want in on the whole “cafeteria Catholic” thing. I mean, everyone else is Catholic “in their own way”, so why should I be any different? And this doesn’t just include soccer moms who take the pill, nuns in leotards dancing up the aisle of the church, or First Things neo-cons who think water boarding is the latest full contact sport… I mean, everyone is doing their own thing, so why should I give a shit if I am doing it correctly? Heck, John Paul II allowed people to put Buddha statues on Christian altars, our present Pope could stand next to a Lutheran ministeress singing a hymn, and most of our bishops believe in all sorts of crazy things, so I really don’t care anymore what Father of the Church St. X-ullus said about W, Y, or Z, or what Aquinas wrote about the existence of space aliens. Most people who do such proof-texting have an agenda that usually results in something being torn down or some quaint anachronism being thrown out the window. To all of those people, I say, “go screw yourselves with bells on!” The Vatican says that we came from monkeys anyway, so I am going to go buy my statue of la Santa Muerte and erect an altar. Try and stop me.

The fact is, a hundred years ago we would have all been heretics. Read the fine print for crying out loud! Is any one of us NOT a modernist?! Even the most “traditionalist” Catholic service looks like it’s from another planet compared to what people expected in church at the turn of last century. I don’t understand people who think that we as Catholics are so substantially different from pantheist Episcopalians that we can look down our nose at them. We can talk all we want about the importance of truth, but the real truth is that we postmoderns have become so numb concerning principles that we impressionistically think that we are being traditional just because we oppose the idea of a man being able to marry his dog. Back in the “good ol’ days”, people would have been burned at the stake for things that we think are “no big deal”: heresy, schism, adultery, etc. Maybe all of this has “legitimately developed”. Well, I, along with 99.99% of other Catholics in the world will “legitimately develop” all of this some more to whatever we think is best.

So it is really that contracepting soccer-mom, the Catholic charismatic writhing on the floor, the prostitute lighting a candle in front of a saint’s shrine, the priest who has a housekeeper who does more than the dusting, etc., it is those people who are normal. All of us Catholics who go on blogs and worry about what X bishop said or what Y cardinal is wearing… we are the ones who are the problem. Everyone else has moved on, so why shouldn’t we?

20 02 2010
Anthony

Wulfila:

Taiji and Reiki are both in the same loose “family” of practices (physical as opposed to religious or magical techniques that attempt to benefit health/power/longevity through the manipulation of qi energy, AKA “qigong”),

I’m going to be difficult and deny that they are even in the same family of practices. The “manipulation” of qi is, or seems to be, an essential aspect of reiki, just as it is in acupuncture. It is hard to see how you could have reiki or acupuncture without talk of qi or a similar concept. With taiji, on the other hand, “qi talk” is more peripheral — in fact I doubt it held even a peripheral place before the mid-19th century.

Part of the difficulty here is that “qi” is a very elastic word in Chinese, and usually has no little or no metaphysical connotation whatsoever. Certain foods can cause “fiery qi” (火氣); a petty person has “small qi” (小氣); air, of course, is “empty qi” (空氣). Similarly, when Taiji masters used to talk about “sinking the qi to the dantian” (氣沉丹田), we might translate that now in physical terms as “activate your transverse abdominus muscles.”

I was just reading a book on Taiji a couple months ago in which the author, an accomplished Taiji master, explained that he would be explaining the principles of Taiji in terms of physics and not 玄學,a derogatory term for Chinese metaphysics. Can Reiki be so reduced to physics? I’m doubtful. That is not to say that it is on a par with actual religious practices from South, East, and Southeast Asia that Christians would be well-advised to avoid. I don’t know whether it is or not, though I’m somewhat inclined to say it isn’t.

20 02 2010
+Wulfila

Everyone:

I did a bit of research and answered one of my own questions. The official guidelines on Reiki are just that – guidelines that have no force unless implemented in specific dioceses by specific bishops. (This is actually mentioned in Arturo’s linked video). My guess is that given the negative feedback generated by this controversy, very few bishops will actually implement the guidelines, and correspondingly few American Catholics will be obliged to follow them.

Anthony:

Right, taiji is not exactly the same thing as Reiki (a Japanese adaptation of traditional Chinese medicine) or any Asian spirituality or religion for that matter. Taiji and Reiki are both in the same loose “family” of practices (physical as opposed to religious or magical techniques that attempt to benefit health/power/longevity through the manipulation of qi energy, AKA “qigong”),

Neither practice is conceived as belonging to the supernatural/religious as opposed to the natural/medical end of the spectrum, although that spectrum itself is rather dubious in Asia. (It’s not really relevant to this discussion to explain why that spectrum is dubious, but I’d be happy to do so after my doctoral exams next week).

The fact that one (taiji) is a martial art recently-reconceived as a form of therapeutic exercise and the other one is a recent adaptation of traditional Chinese medicine doesn’t change the underlying theoretical principles involved in either or make either more or less religious than they otherwise would be. They’re different practical applications of philosophical ideas about qi.

TH2:

1. Trad Med vs. Biomed:

I interpret you as saying that the Western biomedical paradigm is better than traditional medicine because to demonstrate the effectiveness of a treatment you need to demonstrate non-serendipitous material causality and (presumably?) rule out the placebo effect.

I hope it’s obvious to you that if this is intended as an argument rather than a mere statement of preference, it’s a circular one at best, because you’ve loaded criteria of effectiveness which are unique to the Western biomedical paradigm into the test which is supposed to whether or not the Western biomedical paradigm ought to be taken as normative.

With no less circularity, one could turn the tables and assert that the so-called “placebo effect” is conclusive proof for the effectiveness of traditional medicine, because it is a measurable therapeutic effect which results from traditional treatments.

You might find some of these posts at my blog interesting as they deal with Western cognitive imperialism, traditional medicine, and issues such as whether or not Western treatments for psychological illnesses (which are supposed to be more “scientific” and “effective” than traditional cures) actually are to any measurable degree:

http://wulfila.nfshost.com/blog/?p=536
http://wulfila.nfshost.com/blog/?p=680
http://wulfila.nfshost.com/blog/?p=2626

This NPR interview about Ethan Watters book “Crazy Like Us” might be helpful too. (The book collects and summarizes recent research in anthropology and cross-cultural psychology which demonstrates that the displacement of traditional medical diagnosis and treatment paradigms by Western biomedical paradigms in the developing world actually increases the incidence of illness and offers less effective cures than the traditional approach).

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122490928

2. Determinism

This is also bare assertion from the outside – at least, you don’t provide evidence that you interviewed a representative number of practitioners from all the cultures and traditions you mentioned for their opinions on the degree to which their rituals are conceived as being magical/deterministic or sacramental/petitionary in nature. I would suspect that even *within* the traditions you mentioned, there is quite a diversity of viewpoints about how their techniques operate. Why do you not feel as if you need any evidence to back up totalistic descriptions of other people’s worldviews? If I made blanket assertions like this, I’d be booted out of my doctoral program (or at least be required to re-take anthropology of religion) in roughly five seconds flat.

3. Savonarola:

I guess one of us will have to look that up sometime.

4. Yates’ sloppy use of the word Gnosticism

This doesn’t help to show that Yates was using the term “Gnosticism” in the precise sense (that of a heresy with specific propositions which were condemned by specific magisterial actions) rather than in a sloppy sense (“this reminds me of some Gnostic I read once, ergo it is Gnosticism”)

Yates didn’t do any of the historical work necessary to show Pico was “Gnostic,” at least if there’s no more to her argument than what you have provided. (To be fair to Yates, she was a historian of the European Renaissance, not a classicist, and nobody really knew anything about Gnosticism in the 1960s).

First and most obviously, the dating of the Corpus Hermeticum (2nd/3rd centuries CE rather than ca. Moses) has no direct bearing on whether or not its contents can be described as “Gnostic” – not everything written by pagans in the 2nd/3rd centuries CE is “Gnostic,” after all. (Platonists generally considered Gnosticism a kind of pagan heresy, with Plotinus and Porphyry writing polemics against the Gnostics. Likewise, the Corpus Hermeticum is an eclectic collection of literature whose overall tendency is not Gnostic).

You would have to do a great deal of historical work to show that Pico’s sources were Gnostic AND the way he reworked them into his own system was guilty of the same faults. (Thomas Aquinas for instance borrowed ideas from Islamic philosophical sources writing on Aristotle, but his philosophy was neither Muslim nor pagan just because he did so. Most of the time when you borrow an idea, you subtly change it. Why assume that Pico neither misunderstood nor inadvertently changed material when appropriating it for his own purposes?). Minimally, this would require an accurate historical reconstruction of what Gnosticism was, as well as exegetical work to show that what Irenaeus et al. condemned as Gnosticism has any resemblance to real ancient Gnostics and/or Pico della Mirandola.

20 02 2010
mcmlxix

As best as I can tell Christian angelology/demonology is insufficiently developed. This is illustrative of the “black and white theology” charge. Are there no spiritual beings that are neither totally good nor evil, who like us humans are caught up in the drama of exercising our free will daily? Are angels and demons fixed in their post-fall roles now for eternity? Doesn’t this negate their free will?

This is not so in other tradition’s theologies. See Hindu devas, Greek daemons, Muslim jinn (though Muslims deny that angels have free will), Voodoo loa, and on and on spiritual beings everywhere.

Western scientism also tends to discard as superstition anything that cannot be understood by entirely materialist means. What is energy? Of course we know that it can be used to heal/harm. Can it be manipulated by trained humans? Is this manipulating God any more than using radiation to treat cancer? Does it have a spiritual dimension? What is the difference between what we call medicine and magic? Are the distinctions arbitrary and culturally conditioned?

So then as for Reiki, there isn’t a satisfactory western explanation of what it is/isn’t either theologically/scientifically. I also don’t think that it helps that in the United States anyway a considerable number of its followers also follow faddish, esoteric, new age ideas as well as other specific heterodoxies.

What’s a bishop to do? Hopefully better.

19 02 2010
Anthony

Wulfila:

Reiki seems like a pretty innocuous blend of Chinese qigong ideas and visualization/prayer – not unlike taichi, which I believe the Chinese bishops accept as licit.

Taijiquan is and has always been a martial art, a system of combat. It is only in the last 80 years or so that it has been practiced purely as a form of exercise, and only in the last few decades (and only in the West) that it has become closely associated with qigong or any spiritual practice. In China, it is still practiced either as a system of combat or as the light impact aerobics you see people doing in the parks at sunrise. Do not confuse taiji with any traditional East Asian religion/spirituality/yoga/qigong/what-have-you.

19 02 2010
TH2

Arturo, you’re the best. God bless you, sir.

19 02 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Traditional Christianity can kiss my ass. There. I said it. Have a good night, everyone. And may Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde protect you.

19 02 2010
TH2

Wulfila: Thanks for the detailed response.

1. TRAD. MED. v. BIOMEDICAL: “The more common attitude is to take all the help you can get.”

I was not interested in commonality. I was taking the cold-blooded rationalist approach and asking whether “traditional” medicines work. I argue against hocus pocus and say no. If they “appear” or “do” work, it was by serendipity, and there is scientific explanation for it, be it biochemical or whatever.

2. PICO: “Pico had specific theological reasons to have a problem with astrology (its determinism, which he felt was incompatible with Christianity) but that’s hardly a blanket condemnation or repudiation of esoteric interests.”

So are you saying that, in addition to astrology, “esoteric interests” are not deterministic? That there are essential differences between astrology and other forms of esoterica? Don’t buy it. Necromancy, divination – or whatever one wants to call it – in whatever form (Voodoo, “folk Catholicism”, etc.) contain determinstics to whatever degree (i.e. manipulation of freewill, having power over an another). Every and all pagan cultures did not (and cannot) escape the necessitarianism endemic to their worldviews… even the vulgar Marxists with their claim of the inevitable demise of capitalism. Only in Christianity, specifically within the Catholic cultural matrix, is the seed of freewill able to germinate. Like Mr. Vasquez’s fascination with folk Catholicism, Newton – a great innovator of science – was fascinated with alchemy. His science (formally given to the world, so to speak) was correct, but his alchemy as such (studied in secret) was a barrel of laughs (pace folk Catholicism). Formally, Newton advocated God’s free creation: “God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies; bodies find no resistance from the omnipresence of God… and a god without dominion, providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature” (Principia, bk. iii)

3. PICO: “Is this supposed to have happened when he was under the influence of Savonarola?”

Good question. I do not know.

4. YATES: “…the term “gnosticism” is being used in an overbroad sense in that quotation, at least if you mean the quote to be taken as an ascription of heresy to the Renaissance Neoplatonists.”

I disagree. Greater specificity of time/kind of gnosticism that inspired Ficino et al. comes again from Yates:

“…the returning movement of the Renaissance… was based on a radical error in dating. The works which inspired the Renaissance Magus [GUESS WHO?], and which he believed to be of profound antiquity, were really written in the second to third centuries A.D.. He was not returning to an Egyptian wisdom, not much later than the wisdom of the Hebrew patriarchs, and much earlier than Plato and other philosophers of Greek antiquity… He is returning to that religion of the world, strongly tinged with magic and oriental influences, which was the gnostic version of Greek philosophy, and the refuge of weary pagans seeking an answer to life’s problems other than that offered by their contemporaries, the early Christians.”(pp. 1-2)

Seems like classic gnostic heresy to me. I imagine that Irenaeus would concur.

18 02 2010
Christopher

Yup, I think the USCCB is wrong on this; and the ladies, whatever their intentions or actual practice is, should obediently submit. (While privately petitioning their shepherd.)

18 02 2010
Dr. S. Petersen

You give up your case (if there was one) in the first couple of sentences telling us you see a meaningful distinction between rebellious nuns and secularized bishops. The USCCB and the unfrocked nuns both need to go. Do you want to be healed from a toothache or from sin?

18 02 2010
xoanwahn

I’m nowhere near experienced or learned enough to comment on theology and I don’t know much about Reiki but I would agree with the idea that you can petition God but you can’t manipulate Him. I would also point out that God, being God, is probably not manipulable by human beings. We are creatures created by God, who is SO MUCH MORE than we could ever be. How could we possibly ever manipulate God, let alone directly or forcibly? I know a little bit about the manipulation of Saints but that’s a whole other story. Also, from what I recall, Reiki is not about energy manipulation at all. It is a system whereby the practitioner is able to channel universal healing energy effortlessly into a vessel. The energy does the work on its own and the practitioner just put his/her hands out.

18 02 2010
Mark

Here where I live, when modern Western medince fails, even not a few doctors will suggest you go to spiritists or curandeiros. I’ve yet to know of a case of some one seriously ill that didn’t try all methods at their disposal. This sort of thing was well alive here well before V2, so I gather it is some form of paganism that was never entirely wiped out.

18 02 2010
+Wulfila

Arturo: I don’t know much about Reiki specifically, but I did read the bishops’ statement about it when it came out and was surprised and dismayed. I don’t believe the same condemnation could have come from any episcopal conference in Asia and I will someday try to see if there is specific commentary in favor of Reiki in that context. I know that opposition to Reiki was a hobbyhorse of EWTN so perhaps they had some influence on the ultimate decision taken by the bishops. At the time I asked a senior colleague who knows more about Reiki than I do to look at the bishops’ document and he said the bishops could have consulted no serious unbiased sources in making their judgment – any resemblances between the bishops’ idea of Reiki and the actual practice were (he said) purely coincidental.

Reiki seems like a pretty innocuous blend of Chinese qigong ideas and visualization/prayer – not unlike taichi, which I believe the Chinese bishops accept as licit.

The invocation of the concept “superstition” seems quaint and theologically ill-advised. The bishops basically argued that Western biomedicine exhaustively accounts for what cures are possible through nature, anything that goes beyond nature is magical and therefore superstitious, and because you can evoke spirit guides of your choosing to help you (which I imagine for Christian reiki practitioners are usually Jesus and/or the saints) there’s a spiritual element that opens you up to demonic influence. The first part of that argument is tendentious in the extreme – does anyone REALLY think that contemporary Western biomedicine has identified all of the cures and treatments that are possible through natural means? Really? (Qi energy is, in case anyone is interested, theorized as an entirely natural force). This amounts to bare cultural imperialism – Western medicine over Asian medicine. The second and third parts of the argument are are straight out of the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa, which might be OK if the bishops could devise consistent categories for telling post-Vatican II Catholics when those passages from the Summa do and do not apply. When is something “inculturation” or “folk piety” instead of “superstition”? (It’s possible invocations of saints and angels from the Christian pantheon are the former, not the latter). And if you think that there’s a demon lurking behind every “supernatural” as opposed to “natural” event that isn’t baptized and approved by the magisterium, then you’ve got a real problem with Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium – enough of a problem that you really have to choose between two incompatible paradigms – because all those elements of grace/truth that are supposed to exist outside the institutional truth would have to be interpreted as implicitly demonic rather than anonymous inspirations of the Holy Spirit. The judgment amounts to massive conceptual incoherence.

Does anyone know the context though? It sounded as if it was simply a ban on Reiki in Catholic hospitals, not a blanket ban on Reiki for US Catholics.

18 02 2010
+Wulfila

In most of the places in the world I have studied, people who have access to only traditional healing use traditional healing and people who have access to both biomedicine and traditional healing use both systems. Biomedical approaches rarely if ever completely displace traditional approaches, even in the most tradition-poor sectors of the US/Western Europe (where people increasingly turn to “alternative medicine” which is usually borrowed traditional healing from other cultures). It’s uncommon for someone on their death bed or even in a bad way to say “It’s one or the other, damn it” and send somebody who is willing to help packing. The more common attitude is to take all the help you can get. (For what it’s worth, this is also the attitude towards religions in Asia: almost nobody identifies as a practitioner of a single religion, but calls upon most of the traditions available in the area circumstantially with the idea that the different ritual specialists all have complementary strengths. You get a Buddhist to cover your funeral, but a Red Hat Daoist to do the exorcism. Or you get a medical doctor to deal with conditions you believe biomedicine will cure, and you get a folk healer to handle the miraculous).

Pico and astrology: Pico had specific theological reasons to have a problem with astrology (its determinism, which he felt was incompatible with Christianity) but that’s hardly a blanket condemnation or repudiation of esoteric interests. Is this supposed to have happened when he was under the influence of Savonarola?

Yates: It is very likely that the term “gnosticism” is being used in an overbroad sense in that quotation, at least if you mean the quote to be taken as an ascription of heresy to the Renaissance Neoplatonists. To condemn someone as an Origenist, you need to make sure he shares the traits of Origenism that were specifically condemned as heretical, and the same with Jansenism or Gnosticism or whatever else you’re talking about. Heresy is something precise and juridical involving the condemnation of specific practices or propositions – it’s not a matter of resemblances between you and a heretical group allowing you to be broadly and analogically given the same label, it’s a matter of whether or not you sign on to specific propositions/practices which have been condemned. It would be reckless, I think, to believe that Pico was a Gnostic in the authoritatively-proscribed sense at any point in his life.

18 02 2010
TH2

1. “Black and white theology”: Here we go again – attribution of Manichean irreconcilable dualism to Catholicism…. yawn.

2. “…my own fascination tends to get stuck on all of the good Catholic gooey stuff that is stuck between…” Your blurring, Arturo, you’re blurring… How far does this “fascination” go? I’m just asking, still trying to figure you out. Remember: the key word is separABLE not separATED. Distinction! Distinction!

3. I am quite positive that you have come across this quote from Frances Yates, but I include it as just a little reminder:

“…the deepest root of the Renaissance reevaluation of magic as spiritual force lies in the Renaissance interest in gnosticism and the Hermetica… both Ficino’s Neoplatonism and Pico’s attempted synthesis of all philosophies on a mystical basis are really, at bottom, an aspiration after a new gnosis rather than a new philosophy… [man] having within him the divine creative power, and the magical power of marrying earth to heaven rests on the gnostic heresy that man was once, and can become through the intellect… a divine being… a divine man. (Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The University Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 110-111).

I also assume that you are aware that, near to the end of his short life, Pico renounced gnosticism and returned to orthodox Christianity. He also wrote a large treatise against astrology.

3. A question, for anyone to answer: If you were rotting away from cancer or some other extreme disease, lying in a hospital bed in pain, would you want some elderly lady to whip out a pouch of God-knows-what herbs, potion, or whatever, and to sprinkle it on you to cure your disease? Or would you want some doctor outfitted with the latest medical technology and knowledge to get on the matter? (please, no responses on cold, indifferent doctors, they’re scientists, after all). Unless something affects your life in a personal-objective-specific way, one can talk about all the hocus pocus as much as one wants, but, in the final analysis, man cares not one iota for pagan esoterica when death is imminent.

18 02 2010
Ryan

Seems to me like these bishops are not defending tradition but the dualism implicit in modern science.

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