Contradictions abound in almost anyone’s thinking. We regularly tolerate all kinds of nonsense, not because we’re stupid, but because we just don’t notice. Unless something happens that forces the two contradictory ideas together, we’ll continue to believe them both in their hermetically sealed separate spheres, live a long life, and die none the wiser.
Most evangelical brains shelter just such a contradiction when it comes to science. When we start discussing creation with an average secularist, we quickly bring up the issue of the limits of science. Direct observation doesn’t extend into the past…we can only theorize…science is about what’s repeatable…that sort of thing. We’re also quick to point out the litany of scientific errata: Hesperopithecus, the allegedly poor design of the human spine, so-called “vestigial” organs, the famous horse series, the supposed existence of “gills” on the human fetus, and so on.
If science is so darned all-knowing, we want to know, then what about all these mistakes — and what do we “know” today that will turn out to be a mistake? Even more important, we’ll point out the very, very fragmentary nature of scientific knowledge — how little, in the grand scheme of things, we actually know, even about such well-studied subjects as the human body. “Why do we age?” is a perennial favorite. If we’re really feeling our oats, we’ll talk about science’s inability to measure love, hate, or good character. And so on.
In sum, we love to enter those discussions with all our statements about how science has been wrong an awful lot before, and how it’s undoubtedly wrong an awful lot even now, and how there’s so very, very much that it doesn’t even begin to know. And even if you don’t like my particular examples, you know very well that the basic principle is sound: scientific knowledge is both incomplete and fallible.
Hold on to that thought; we’ll be coming back to it.
Now on another day, at another time, the same evangelicals will be having a perfectly holy conversation when someone in the group mentions that she’s thinking about taking a yoga class, or going to an acupuncturist to treat her tennis elbow, or enrolling at a martial art studio, or involvement in any one of dozens of other cultural artifacts that happen to originate east of the Caucasus. Almost certainly, someone in the group will instantly object that a Christian shouldn’t do those things. Yoga is a Hindu practice, you see. Martial arts are a form of Buddhist evangelism. Traditional Chinese medicine is tainted with Taoism and ancestor-worship. If the hapless naif who introduced the subject is easily intimidated, that will be the end of that.
Sometimes, however, actual discussion takes place. The arguments against these things will take a couple of basic shapes.
Often the first will be the bare assertion that the thing in question originates from an idolatrous culture. Chinese culture is steeped in Buddhism, Taoism, and animism, and therefore — so the argument goes — Chinese medicine is tainted, and a Christian should not be involved in it. The unspoken assumption here is that which originates from an idolatrous culture must of necessity be idolatrous in its very nature. Not surprisingly, fireworks, the moveable type printing press and kung pao chicken will not be mentioned in this conversation.
(There’s more to say in refutation to that one, but I think kung pao chicken will hold the line for now. The rest of the refutation is for another post.)
A second often-advanced argument will be that the discipline in question is not scientifically proven. This is not really the argument — it’s a trap. Listen in as the trap springs…
Trapper: “…besides, that stuff’s just folklore anyway; there’s no physical evidence of energy flowing around the body like that. There have been a bunch of scientific studies. If you need help, why not just go to a real doctor?”
Naif: “But it works! My aunt had pain in her legs so bad she couldn’t walk, and nobody could help her. She finally went to an acupuncturist, and in two months she was cured!”
Trapper: “I didn’t say it couldn’t work, just that it’s not physical.” [ominously] “You know, there are only two sources of spiritual power in the world. If it’s not physical energy they’re manipulating, then it’s spiritual — and it’s not the power of prayer. Why would you want to be cured by demonic power?”
Poor Naif walked right into it. Acupuncture is not scientifically proven, and therefore if it works, it’s for other (read: demonic) reasons. All the more reason to stay away. Trapper gets away with this sleight-of-mouth by assuming that what science can’t presently explain or detect isn’t in the physical realm at all.
Now, retrieve that thought I’d asked you to hold onto earlier.
You see the problem? Bet you dollars to doughnuts, when Trapper gets into an argument about creation and evolution, he’s all about the limitations of empirical science. But when he’s arguing about acupuncture, Trapper has to pretend that empirical science knows everything in order to sell his “demons did it” hypothesis.
Who’s really getting trapped, here?
There’s a lot about the body that we don’t know. There’s a lot about the body that traditional cultures do know, and it shouldn’t surprise us if they know some things we don’t. After all, when you don’t have to keep up with an endless flood of sappy Christian historical fiction or reruns of the holy-hairdo-of-the-month on TBN, it’s amazing how much time you have on your hands. Lacking all our entertainment, and the tech-toys we use to do everything, they tend to use their bodies more, and pay more attention to the workings of the body than we do.
Some of this knowledge survives in common folk wisdom, even in America. Let’s say someone was just involved in a near-accident, and he’s still so adrenaline-sick that he needs to pull over to the side of the road to regain his composure. Let’s consider two common things we might say to him under those circumstances.
“Shake it off,” we say, thinking that it’s a metaphor. It’s not. Shaking will happen involuntarily to some degree, but people usually try to “control” (read: stop) it. if our distressed motorist lets the shaking come naturally, or even induces it deliberately, it will rapidly reduce his residual muscle tension and help him to restore equilibrium.
“Take a deep breath” is another common response, also very literal. If our frightened motorist will slow his breathing, perhaps inhaling for a slow count of four, holding his breath for a slow count of four, exhaling for a slow count of four, holding the exhale for a slow count of four, and continue in that pattern for several minutes, the slowed respiration will automatically reduce his heart rate, which will in turn lead to a lower level of overall arousal, and the return of the coordination and fine motor functions so essential for driving.
You can find these principles embodied in traditional practices around the world, and — as we just saw — in our own vernacular, even if we don’t realize what we’re saying. Western medical research into these phenomena is relatively recent, and by no means extensive so far. So how much else is there that the guys in lab coats don’t know?
If I was guessing, I’d say quite a lot.
But that doesn’t mean that nobody knows about it. Over in China and India, warriors had been using breathwork to control stress since Hippocrates was an intern. Their explanation of how it worked might have been a bit odd, and I doubt they would have used terms like “blood gasses” or “autonomic nervous system.” But they could do it, and they could teach someone else to do it. Their modern-day descendants can do the same.
If you wait for the pencil-necks in lab coats to catch up, you could be waiting a very long time for some very old news.