by Robert Velarde

A nurse quietly enters a dimly lit hospital room. She “centers” herself in order to aid in being more attuned to the energies flowing through the body of the patient. While the patient sleeps, the nurse then begins to assess the patient by scanning the energy field with her hands, which remain a few inches above the body of the patient.

When the nurse notices pressure in certain areas of the patient’s body she realizes that these are spots where energy needs to be decongested. Her hands, still not touching the patient, now move in circles or sometimes in downward sweeping motions. Finally, the nurse is ready to act as a conduit and redirects energy in the patient or transfers her own energy in order to aid healing. After about twenty minutes, the nurse is done with her treatment and silently leaves the room.

Not far from this hospital, at a local health club, a massage therapist specializing in Eastern techniques explains to a patient that the session will involve the manipulation of energy in the body based on influences of Shiatsu, jin shin jyutsu, and jin shin do. Certain pressures points or “meridians,” it is explained, will be the focus of the massage.

Meanwhile, at a local public school, an educational therapist begins work with a student by having the child do some “muscle testing.” The therapist asks the child to hold various objects. What the student probably doesn’t know is that the practitioner is utilizing Applied Kinesiology – a method introduced in 1964 that is based on muscle testing, acupressure and the concept of chi as found in Chinese medicine.

It it’s not clear by now, what all of the above alternative medicine practices have in common is belief in an invisible energy force that is tied to health. The first, known as Therapeutic Touch, despite the fact that the practitioner’s hands do not actually touch the patient, originated in 1975 and is based on the Hindu concept of energy called prana. Forms of massage based on Eastern religious concepts also hold to existence of invisible energies flowing through our bodies, while Applied Kinesiology incorporates a mixture of beliefs which find their root in the Chinese concept of energy (chi).

Belief in invisible energy is the predominant touch point between complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and the New Spirituality (aka the New Age Movement). While there certainly are many other similarities between various CAM practices and the New Spirituality, the most significant commonality from a worldview and discernment perspective involves energy. As a result, this article will emphasize energy-based alternative medicine. First, I will offer an overview of six features of this energy. Second, I will present some common arguments used in support of this energy. Third, I will address some objections to my position.  Finally, I will note the worldview and discernment connections to alternative medicine.

My approach is intended to offer a broad critique of energy-based alternative medicine, their ties to religious beliefs, and my concerns about their relationship to Christianity.1

Six Principles of Life Energy

The New Spirituality and energy-based alternative medicine overlap in important ways.  Although the most significant influences are derived from Eastern religious beliefs, such as prana in Hinduism and chi (also qi or ki) in Chinese medicine, many cultures offer similar terms for an invisible energy force that permeates reality as we know if (Polynesian traditions for instance, call it mana).²

For the sake of simplicity I will use the terms “life energy” or “life force” to refer to this invisible energy. While there may be some variation regarding life energy as used in CAM, the following six points are common:

  1. Life energy is said to be the fabric of the universe. Despite the fact that it cannot be measured scientifically, this life force is said to permeate all of reality including living beings. ³ This view leads to pantheism (all is god), not Christianity.
  2. It is claimed that disease arises from an imbalance or blockage of the flow of life energy in the body. Adherents claim that life energy must flow properly within the human body in order for it to be healthy. If the life energy does not flow well or is blocked or hindered in some way, then the result is a health issue. In Chinese medicine the life force is said to flow through a system of channels known as meridians. As a result, some practitioners will refer to  “meridian points” through which chi circulates. In Hinduism, the life energy (prana) flows through channels called nadi, which in turn cross seen energy centers called chakras. If a practitioner used terminology that claims energy blockages or energy circulation is a problem in reference to a health concern, it is likely the practitioner is involved in some form of life energy healing.
  3. Although its existence has never been acknowledged by the scientific establishment, life energy and its disturbances can supposedly be detected in a variety of ways. Some claim to be able to read auras – alleged visual representations of the energy flowing in and around everyone. Others will use electrodiagnostic or bioenergetic devices. These are usually impressive looking pieces of electronic equipment – many are illegal in the United States-that purportedly measure life energy.4
  4. Adherents claim life energy can somehow be manipulated in order to treat illness or maximize health. Given the premise that disease results in disturbances in energy flow, adherents claim that correcting the imbalance or blockage will result in healing. Practitioners of energy based medicine utilize a number of techniques to  manipulate the flow of life energy. Some, life those who practice Therapeutic Touch do not even physically touch a patient in order to manipulate the life energy. Other practitioners will massage meridian points or practice acupuncture at key points. Practitioners of qi gong claim to be able to project life energy out of their bodies (not unlike the Jedi masters of Star Wars films) for use in defense or in healing. Adherents of feng shui claim that even the arrangements of furniture and other objections in one’s home can positively or negatively affect the flow of life force energy.5
  5. Alterations of life energy are sometimes said to be source of events that previously have been called supernatural or miraculous. Some adherents of energy-based medicine offer the life force as an explanation for what people have called miracles. In this scheme there is no longer a need for a personal, all-powerful, transcendent God. Instead, the impersonal life force is the cause of miracles.” Moreover, being part of this life force, we too can master it and perform “miracles” as well. Jesus then, was merely a master of this life fore. as a result, in the New Spirituality and its associated alternative medicine practices, Jesus is more “a way, a truth, and a life force” then “the way and the truth and the life” of Scripture (John 14:6).
  6. Life energy is what religions have called God. Here is the cornerstone of the New Spirituality: “You shall be as gods.” If the energy flowing through us is indeed the life force that permeates reality, it must be what we have called God. If we are energy and energy is “God,” then we must be divine. Energy-based practitioners and patients that embrace this point are likely to be involved in a number of related New Age practices that result from such reasoning. Some, like actress Shirley MacLaine, may become so bold as to say “I am God!” Of course, not all practitioners and patients have made this leap, but if the underlying principles of life force energy are followed through to their logical conclusions, this is the end of the line: We are divine.

Additional New Age Connections
Now that these six basic points of life energy have been presented, it will be helpful to offer a clearer connection between these views and those of the New Spirituality. To do this, I will present four “articles of faith” of life energies. First, we find the principle “all is one” underlying much energy-based medicine. This view of reality, known as monism, is key to certain forms of Hinduism (namely Advaita Vedanta, also known as non-dualistic Hinduism).

Second, human beings are, at their core, perfect. Read through just about any of Deepak Chopra’s writings, for instance, and this second article of faith of life energies will quickly become clear.

Third, our most important purpose in life is to become aware of our true, divine nature. This awareness may come via meditation techniques or other forms of “enlightenment,” but regardless of how the conclusion is arrived at, it bears no resemblance to the Christian view that we are fallen beings in need of radical redemption, brought about by sincere repentance to a personal, living God.

Fourth, enlightenment leads to healing and other powerful psychospiritual experiences. In its more extreme forms, this fourth article of faith may lead to overt occult immersion (i.e., contact with the demonic).

Does Life Energy Exist?
Space does not allow a detailed explanation and refutation of the key arguments used by adherents of energy-based alternative medicine. This section will merely touch upon some of the arguments used in support of life energy medicine the primary responses.6

What about the claims that these are ancient practices that even critics admit are found in various cultures, so they must be true? Does the fact that many cultures throughout history possess a concept similar to life energy mean that it is true? Logically, the answer is no. All of these cultures could be mistaken. Moreover, if we grant that we are fallen and sinful beings in rebellion, and that we are in “enemy-occupied territory” as C.S. Lewis put it, then it is indeed likely that we would invent something such as a concept of “life energy” that would, in essence, make us gods rather than giving acknowledgement to the true and rightful Lord of all. We are, as Pascal put it, great beings, but also wretched beings.7

What if energy-based medicine (or, in fact, any sort of alternative medicine) worked for someone? This is perhaps the most disconcerting defense of questionable alternative medicine practices. It is a most disturbing argument when it comes from the mouths of Christians who, given their worldview, should know better. This is a pragmatic argument that, in many respects, disregards truth. If truth is what corresponds to reality, and if an alternative medicine practice does not conform to reality, and if such a practice in fact is clearly opposed to God’s revealed truths, then it must be abandoned regardless of whether or not it “works.” What should concern us more than something “working” for us is the underlying worldview of a practice or belief, not the pragmatic aspects. If belief in life energy is true, then we are in the realm of “everything you know is wrong.” That is to say, if life energy and all that it encompasses is real, it not only goes against the grain of tested knowledge of reality (general revelation), but it also goes against the grain of God’s revealed truths (special revelation). There is no escaping the fact that the underlying worldview of energy-based alternative medicine is largely pantheistic. Pantheism claims all is divine, results in moral relativism (since good and evil do not exist), does away with a personal, loving God, and sees no need for Christ or his redemption.

Responding to Common Objections
Inevitably some common objections arise in reference to my critical position on alternative medicine. I will address four concerns. First, some claim that my position lends support to naturalism while minimizing supernaturalism. Naturalism may be defined as the worldview that believes that only the material world exists. A result of naturalism is the exclusion of the supernatural (i.e., the view that believes there is more to reality than the material world such as the existence of God). Does my position minimize supernaturalism while exalting naturalism? Not at all. As the saying goes, all truth is God’s truth. This is correct regardless of the source of the truth. If, based on available data, conventional health care has come to correct conclusions in reference to how our bodies function, we should accept those conclusions. This is not to say that simply because naturalism is the predominant worldview in the sciences, including the medical field, that we are to accept all of its premises. One can be a theist and agree with much of what science has discovered about how our bodies function without embracing neo-Darwinism, for instance.

Second, sometimes people object to criticisms of alternative medicine on the basis that perhaps this life force or energy really exists but we just haven’t been able to detect it yet. We may logically allow the possibility but given the massive amounts of evidence in support of other explanations of reality, as well as the extensive data arguing against the existence of life force energy, the burden of proof is on those who claim these energies exist and that manipulating them is related to health.

Third, Christians sometimes object that criticism of energy-based healing is akin to limiting how God can work. A variation of this argument claims that since God can do anything, He certainly can work through energy-based alternative medicine. God is indeed omnipotent. This means He can do anything consistent with His nature. God, however, cannot lie, for instance, or do something that would otherwise contradict His nature. For God to support healing through energy-based alternative medicine would mean that we either have a God that is not the God of the Bible or that He is contradicting His nature—something He cannot do because God does not change (see, for example, Num. 23:19; 1 Sam.15:29; and Malachi 3:6).

Finally, some Christians claim that this life energy may be the breath of God or the Holy Spirit, sometimes likening energy-based medical techniques to laying on of hands. This objection is similar to the previous one in that such a perspective entails God contradicting His nature. The Holy Spirit is a person, not an energy force. Moreover, nowhere does the Bible teach that “the breath of God” is like the energies referred to in energy-based alternative medicine. Rather, the influence on these practices is Eastern, not Christian. As to laying on of hands, energy-based alternative medicine is based on worldview underpinnings that are contradictory to the concept of laying on of hands.

Alternative Medicine and Worldview Discernment
After having studied and written on the topic of CAM for several years, as well as having interacted with practitioners and other adherents, I have come to the conclusion that no matter what I say on the topic no one is ever completely satisfied. Inevitably complaints are raised that my criticisms of certain alternative medicine practices are too severe, too soft, or too simplistic. Sometimes I am able to clear up misconceptions, but more often than not, critics do not realize the worldview foundations in the area of health care and their relevance to apologetics and discernment.8 Ideas matter. Alternative medicine is not exempt from staking claims about reality that are relevant to larger worldview issues. As Harold Brown observes, “medicine, like engineering or industrial production, is often considered a technique rather than a philosophy or worldview. In fact, however, medicine brings its practitioners into touch with a broad range of human existence; changes in the culture sooner or later must affect medicine, and changes in medicine cannot fail to affect the entire culture.”9

Christians are called to worship the Lord “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Indeed, God is a God of truth who throughout the Bible calls us to seek and adhere to truth in the sense of what corresponds to reality.10 In addition, Paul tells us to “examine everything carefully” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21, NASB). If a competing worldview, religion, ideology, or philosophy—or even a form of health care—does not correspond to reality (i.e., is not true), we must not be taken captive by such views (Colossians 2:8) regardless of their purported efficacy.

Robert Velarde is coauthor of Examining Alternative Medicine: An Inside Look at the Benefits and Risks (InterVarsity Press, 2001) and author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Bible; Good and Evil in the Classic Tales of C.S. Lewis (NavPress, 2005).

 

NOTES
1 Secular and sacred critiques of energy-based medicine are readily available. For secular critiques see, for instance, www.quackwatch.org and Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour, Examining Holistic Medicine (Prometheus, 1989). For a thorough Christian assessment see Paul Reisser, Dale Mabe, and Robert Velarde, Examining Alternative Medicine: An Inside Look at the Benefits and Risks (InterVarsity, 2001).

2 For a list of some other traditions and their terminology for this energy see Examining Alternative Medicine, 80-81. See also John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Can You Trust Your Doctor? The Complete Guide to New Age Medicine and its Threat to Your Family (Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1991), 46.

3 Certain forms of energy-based medicine that are more overt in their religious associations promote pantheism (all is divine) and, as a result, claim that even inanimate objects have this life energy flowing through them.

4 For more on these devices see Stephen Barrett, “Quack ‘Electrodiagnostic’ Devices,” available at http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/electro.html.

5 For an assessment of feng shui, see Marcia Montenegro, “Feng Shui: New Dimensions in Design,” Christian Research Journal 26:1 (2003); available at http://www.equip.org/free/DF250.htm

6 For arguments against the claim that quantum physics proves energy-based medicine see Examining Alternative Medicine, 182-187. Also see Victor J. Stenger, “Quantum Quackery,” in Skeptical Inquirer (January/February 1997); available at http://www.csicop.org/si/9701/quantum-quackery.html.

7 On Blaise Pascal’s anthropological argument see Robert Velarde, “Greatness and Wretchedness: The Usefulness of Pascal’s Anthropological Argument in Apologetics,” Christian Research Journal 27:2 (2004); available at http://www.equip.org/free/JAP500.htm. For an examination of the origins of false religion in general see Winfried Corduan, “The (True/False) Origin of (True/False) Religion” Areopagus Journal 2:3 (July 2002): 6-11.

8 For more of my thoughts on concerns regarding alternative medicine and the church see my article, “Alternative Medicine, Apologetics, and the Church,” Christian Research Journal, 27:6 (2004); available at http://www.equip.org/free/JAM005.htm.

9 Harold O.J. Brown, The Sensate Culture (Dallas: Word, 1996), p. 202.

10 For more on the biblical view of truth see Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (InterVarsity, 2000), especially chapter 3.