This month is Asian Heritage Month, being observed by the Canada and the United Church of Canada. This Sunday was specifically devoted to Asian Heritage, and I thought I’d share some of my reflections on this day.
I will note that I am a white, cisgender, heterosexual male in Ontario, Canada coming from a middle class background. I do not have any Asian ancestry in my lineage that I am aware of; I have, however, studied Tai Chi (in one form or another) since I was 12. My Tai Chi practice is a key component of my physical and mental health, and a keystone in my spiritual life.
Chi & Spirit: Towards Intersectional Theology
In her book The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology, author, theologian and minister Grace Ji-Sun Kim argues compellingly for the embracing the Spirit as a way for Christians to engage with other faith traditions and cultures without repeating the mistakes of the past. Part of this argument is built on the abundance of similarities, linguistic and behaviourally, of concepts like Spirit, chi, asana, etc–with examples in seemingly every culture.
On the opposite side of the coin, however, is an urge to restraint. Interfaith dialogue is important, but many of the most successful interfaith relations are built on deliberately not conflating two seemingly similar concepts. Oftentimes, when one digs deeper, there are subtleties and depths that reveal highly sensitive areas of difference between concepts.
For myself, I view chi as part of the created aspect of the world–Spirit, on the other hand, is an expression of the Divine Creator. Chi is thus part of my faith but through an essentialy Christian lens. I do, feel, however, that the Spirit is the aspect of the Trinity that holds a particular promise for interfaith and intercultural dialogue and engagement.
Tai Chi And My Faith
When I first started studying Tai Chi, I was not yet part of the Christian faith fully–that would come later. I’ve gone over the history of my Tai Chi journey in other posts, so rather than re-treading that ground, I’ll share some of my current reflections and understandings. I will note that my understanding of both Tai Chi and my faith are constantly evolving and thus what I share here is very much a snapshot of my current understandings and not meant to hold true for all time.
My Tai Chi instructor has shared that all martial arts can be understood as conflict resolution, each with their own approach and philosophy as to how to resolve conflict. This is not to be mistaken for “joining hands and singing kumbaya”; obviously, when it comes to using a martial art, violent action is understood to be necessary in at least circumstances.
One of my first draws to Tai Chi, and which has remained true through all my years of study, is Tai Chi’s emphasis on “soft” power. “Hard” power is often how we imagine things in much of Western media, with bulky muscles and sheer brute strength winning the day. “Soft” power, by contrast, balances an outward pressure with a bit of give–it’s more resilient and “springy”.
In the barehanded forms, Tai Chi’s approach relies on this “soft-power”. In combat, Tai Chi relies on connecting to an opponent, sensing their intent, and redirecting that intent to disrupt the balance of the opponent. Once these steps are complete, the rest is relatively unimportant from a Tai Chi perspective–options range from take-downs to strikes to joint locks. In essence, Tai Chi’s conflict resolution philosophy can be summed up as: taking away tension and/or force from the conflict.
In the Sword and Saber forms, this philosophy is largely extended. Much of the technique of these forms involves a seamless switch between defense and offense–sometimes the two are even combined. Almost every defensive move leaves an opponent vulnerable to a decisive strike that will end the conflict–sometimes fatally, sometimes just by maiming, but always an end to the opponent’s ability to wage conflict. Additionally, even in the weapons forms, contact with an opponent’s weapon is often key to the move.
Christians have been debating appropriate uses of force for millennia and are unlikely to agree anytime soon. The stances expressed have argued from use of force never being allowed, to being allowed only as a last resort in defense of oneself and others, to proportional responses, to an aggressive no-holds barred slaughter justified by faith.
For myself, I tend to fall in the violence as a last resort, in defense of oneself and others, and as limited as possible, camp. And perhaps that is part of my peace with Tai Chi as I do believe in a practical reality of violence SOMETIMES being necessary. Tai Chi as a vehicle for that violence, appeals to me because of its approach and philosophy. Tai Chi often encourages a certain grimness and regret when violence becomes necessary; it is built on connecting to an opponent, which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to forget that we ARE connected; and it resolves to take away force rather than escalating force, or meeting force with force.
Practicing Tai Chi has given me insights into my Christian faith, and Tai Chi is one of the times I feel most connected to the Divine. I see Tai Chi as a way of understanding and developing my connection with and usage of the life force that is part of the created order, and by so doing to grow into deeper relationship with the divine creator, through the Spirit.