It’s a strange paradox: Australia’s becoming less Christian, and increasingly secular—yet at the same time, more spiritual.
Think about it. In most urban centres, it’s a short drive to the nearest yoga class, martial arts club, or new age shop. Movies and TV shows are soaked in supernatural themes. Local councils are constantly approving new temples and mosques, while major health funds now recognise therapies like acupuncture and aromatherapy. And most cities now host Mind Body Spirit festivals, complete with guided meditation sessions and psychic reading rooms.
For conservative Christians, it poses a challenge. How do we respond as alternative spirituality finds its way into our schools, workplaces and communities? Should we join in, picking out the ‘good bits’ from the ‘bad bits’? Or should we steer clear?
According to Reverend Dr Ross Clifford, the answers aren’t always black and white, but one things for sure: we need to talk about it.
Surrounded by Eastern-Inspired Spirituality
Dr Clifford, a Baptist theologian and prolific author, tackles the topic of alternative spiritual and cultural practices head-on, in his latest book, ‘Taboo or To Do‘.
Talking to Hope Media, he said it was the rise of Eastern, Buddhism-inspired spirituality in the mainstream, that drove him to write the book with co-author Philip Johnson.
Working as the principal of Morling Theological College, just a stone’s through from Macquarie University, he said sees alternate spiritual practices at every turn.
“It’s right here every day,” he said. “I walk through Macquarie University and there is mindfulness being advertised, people doing tai chi, and someone with a prayer mat praying to Allah. You walk your dog past yoga, martial arts. It’s that kind of spirituality we can’t escape, in the workplace, the school. And should we escape it?
“It needs to be engaged. You need to talk about it.”
We Must Talk About It – Respectfully
Chapter by chapter, Taboo or To Do looks at the origins, benefits and potential pitfalls of ‘new spirituality’ practices. Yoga, Reiki, acupuncture, aromatherapy, martial arts and meditation all get a cross-examination, as do angels, spirit guides, astral travel, astrology and numerology, and even pet-blessings.
“We can’t afford to ignore these issues anymore.”
The book is neither blasé nor alarmist, but curious and enquiring, helping Christians to come up with their own response to peoples’ spiritual practices—and to engage in a respectful, missional way.
“We can’t afford to ignore these issues anymore,” Dr Clifford said. “It’s where spirituality is rubbing against us as Christians in the community today. We need to be informed, prayerful, and make good decisions and responses. And that’s what we’re seeking to help people to do.”
Mindfulness Meditation: “Why I Changed My Mind”
Dr Clifford encourages his readers to have an open mind, and be prepared to shift in their views. In fact when writing Taboo or To Do, he had his own change of heart about mindfulness – a form of meditation that’s increasingly encouraged in Australian schools, boardrooms, staff retreats and counselling centres. Once a mindfulness sceptic, he now recognises its value.
“Mindfulness was playing a part in their life. So If you remove it from them, what are you going to replace it with?”
“I had a couple of young Christians in Year 12, talk to me about mindfulness meditation,” he said. “Their parents were concerned about it because of its Buddhist roots, but it was compulsory in their school program. So we talked through its strengths and weaknesses. They said to me, ‘Look, it’s really helping us to detach, to find space, understand what’s happening to us emotionally.’
“Mindfulness was playing a part in their life. So If you remove mindfulness from them, what are you going to replace it with? Does it have a basic principles Christians can build on and use and ‘Christianize’, if you like? It needs to be addressed, because people are involved in it.”
His book delves into various forms of mindfulness meditation and its health benefits, its potential problems (such as leaving God out of the picture), and ways that Christians might practice meditation in a healthy, God-centred way.
Approaching Yoga With Discernment
Another practice that’s well and truly entered the mainstream is yoga.
“Yoga is almost universal,” Dr Clifford said. “It’s happening in soccer teams, sporting teams; I’d be surprised if there was an Olympic team that didn’t use yoga.”
Many Christians give yoga a wide berth because of its origins, and while Dr Clifford encourages people not to fear it, they should still be discerning, he says.
“If I do yoga, as a Christian, am I connecting myself with a ‘foreign god’? That’s a big issue.”
“Its bodily movements, its bodily postures, and its origins are Hindu,” he explained. “It involves an inflow of energy that ultimately connects you, traditionally, with the Hindu god. So if I do yoga, as a Christian, am I connecting myself with an alien, foreign god? That’s a big issue. Am I opening myself up to a spiritual battle? Or am I setting a poor example for someone? They’re the things you’ve got to look at clearly.”
However many yoga classes now dispense with the spiritual elements and focus only on the health benefits. And while some Hindu yoga purists find that offensive, it means there’s an an alternative many people of other faiths are comfortable with.
In fact in Taboo or To Do, Dr Clifford outlines a number of ‘Christianized’ forms of yoga.
He says the key to deciding whether to be involved in a yoga group, is to find about the nature of the group, its leader, and what they are trying to achieve.
Should My Child Be Learning Martial Arts?
A whole chapter in Dr Clifford’s book is dedicated to the modern explosion of martial arts, such as Karate, Jujitsu, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Tai Chi and MMA. If you’re considering joining a class or sending your kids for lessons, discernment is the key, says Dr Clifford.
“Some of the martial arts are clearly linked to a Daoist view of the world,” he said. “Others have different origins. A lot of them are connected to the whole sense of tai chi, and flow of energy, and getting that right in your own body, your system, and in the world around you. Tai chi is the passive form of martial arts, and it involves animal postures.”
“With martial arts, you need to work through the violence issue, and you also need to ask, ‘Can I separate the martial arts from this whole harmony, energy, Daoism? Where is the practitioner coming from? Is this for self-esteem, self-defense, or is this about releasing me into an Eastern religion?
“You need to work through those issues as a family, a church, and decide what responses you are going to make.”
What About Alternative Therapies?
A number of therapies now available in natural healthcare have links to Eastern spirituality and the New Age – such as acupuncture, chiropractic, Reiki, reflexology and shiatsu massage.
As with yoga, Dr Clifford’s rule of thumb about these therapies is to consider out the stance of the doctor or practitioner. Are they invested in Eastern beliefs about energy flows? Are they seeking a connection with the spiritual world in their practice? What is their intention for the patient?
“Jesus is the ultimate truth…but that doesn’t mean there’s not truth in other world views.”
He admits he has some deeper concerns about Reiki healing in particular. But many therapies, for example acupuncture, could be practiced in a way that taps into God’s design for our bodies, that modern Western medicine hasn’t yet picked up on.
“Not all world views out there are true, in fact, only one is true, but that doesn’t mean there’s not truth in other world views,” Dr Clifford said. “Jesus is the ultimate truth, but it doesn’t mean that other people haven’t got some perceptions about how we are made and how we work better, and how our body operates best. So with acupuncture, many people feel it’s actually found something that medically stands up.”
Christians, Don’t Put Your Head In The Sand
When Christians encounter alternative expressions of spirituality – and they will – the best response they can make is to let go of prejudices, spend less time demonizing people, and more time listening, says Dr Clifford.
After all, most people who engage in spiritual practices are simply hungry for fulfilment and truth. And God wants to help them in their search.
“This is a searching world,” Dr Clifford said. “People are asking questions. They’re not sure about the church any more, but they’re pretty open to Jesus. This is where the missional engagement is.”
“And whether we like it or not, whatever you view about these practices, you or your spouse or your children or your grandchildren are going to interact with these practices,” Dr Clifford said. “You cannot avoid it.”
Dr Ross Clifford’s books on alternative spirituality include:
- ‘Taboo or To Do‘: Is Christianity Complementary with Yoga, Martial Arts, Halloween, tarot and other alternative practices? (2016)
- The Mission of the Church and the New Age Movement (1995)
- Jesus and the Gods of the New Age (2001)
- Beyond Prediction: The Tarot and Your Spirituality (2001)