BY: JAMES MORGANTE, MDiv
Mr. Morgante, a certification-eligible member of the National
Association of Catholic Chaplains, lives in Spokane, WA.
The current widespread interest in alternative and complementary medicine
focuses attention on an understanding of health, disease, and the respective
roles of physicians and patients that is very different from the conventional
medical view.* These differences raise questions, particularly for spiritual
care providers in health care settings, about the theological point of view
concerning such things.
* A 1991
Harvard Medical School survey estimated that, during the previous
year, Americans had made more visits to alternative practitioners
than to primary care physicians (Nurse's Handbook of Alternative
& Complementary Therapies Springhouse Corporation,
Springhouse, PA, 1999, p.4). Six years later, a Harvard Medical
School survey found that 42 percent of Americans were using
alternative therapies, for which they were spending $21 billion
annually. In 2000 courses in alternative medicine were being
offered in 75 U.S. medical schools (Michael Castleman, Blended
Medicine, Rodale, Emmaus, PA, 2000, p. 4).
The underlying philosophy of alternative and complementary
systems is holistic, which is to say that health is understood
as a state of harmony and balance between various human dimensions
and disease is seen as disharmony and imbalance.1
Typically, these dimensions include the physical, psychological,
and spiritual, but some systems also include the emotional and
social. From the holistic viewpoint, all dimensions interact
dynamically with one another and must be taken into account
as far as maintaining health and treating disease are concerned.
In contrast, the philosophy of conventional medicine is considered,
by people who share the holistic view, to be reductionist2
or materialistic,3 focusing primarily on the
physical body and physical processes. Health, in this account,
is the "absence of disease,"4 which is usually determined
on the basis of physical symptoms and quantifiable measurements.
These basic differences can also be seen in the two schools'
approaches to disease. Conventional medicine treats disease
by "waging war"5 against the germs or pathogens that
are understood to cause it. Surgery, radiation, and powerful
antibiotic drugs are the acceptable means of fighting disease.
In their efforts to treat physical processes through physical
substances, conventional healers control for the "placebo effect,"
or the power of suggestion, and eliminate it as much as possible.6
For holistic healers, balancing the "internal environment" (milieu
interieur) of the body — through proper diet and lifestyle
and the use of natural substances and medicaments — is more important
than fighting germs or pathogens.7 The body — and nature — have
their own inherent healing powers, which are important to nourish
and support.8 Insofar as possible, one should "do
no harm,"9 from which it follows that one should
use natural medicines and substances, thereby avoiding the harmful
side effects of conventional drugs.10 As for the "placebo
effect," which is understood to affirm the power of the mind,
it should be encouraged, not discouraged.11
Such different opinions about the nature of health and disease
reflect in large measure the contrast between prevention and
intervention as treatment strategies; each school of thought
attributes differing roles to patients and doctors. Prevention
and intervention, as schools of thought, trace their origins
to the Greek mythological figures of Asclepius and Hygeia.12
According to legend, Asclepius was a physician who, instructed
in the art of healing by the god Apollo, himself became a god
and the focus of a priestly temple cult devoted to healing.13
Hygeia, his daughter (in other versions his sister or wife),
was revered as the Greek goddess of health. Conventional medicine
today is understood to be the inheritor of the tradition of
Asclepius, the focus of which is primarily on the physician
"hero" or "rescuer" who restores health by treating disease
and correcting "imperfections and accidents." Alternative and
holistic systems, in contrast, trace their philosophical outlook
to the tradition of Hygeia. Health, in this tradition, is a
part of the natural order and results from living wisely. The
purpose of medicine, therefore, is to "discover and teach" the
laws that govern health. From this perspective, the physician
is a teacher,14 and the self-responsibility of the
patient comes to the fore, which is a hallmark of the holistic
point of view.*
* "Holism requires an individual to accept responsibility
for his own well-being — his own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual
health, his personal choices, and the health of his relationships" (Nurse's
Handbook of Alternative & Complementary Therapies, p. 62). See also
Evans, pp. 22-24, 38, 123; Murray, The Complete Book of Juicing, Prima
Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1997, p. ix; Phalen, p. 2.; and Weil, Health and
Healing, p. 273.
Although both prevention and intervention as treatment strategies trace their
origins to hallowed traditions, they sometimes conflict. This conflict can be
seen, to choose a dramatic example, in their differing treatments of the so-called
"diseases of civilization or affluence" — the chronic, degenerative diseases of
the times (such as arthritis, many forms of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease) — that
have been definitively linked to the Western diet and lifestyle.† Treating these
diseases — the leading causes of death — takes up the majority of health care expenditures
today.‡Conventional medicine treats aggressively with drugs, radiation,
and surgery — therapies that, from the alternative medicine viewpoint, are not
only harmful in themselves but also misguided because of their relationship
to lifestyle and diet. Such debates are not irrelevant to spiritual care providers.
Whether the pain and suffering associated with these diseases are considered
inevitable or to a significant extent preventable is an important question to
† The "diseases of affluence" are cancer of the
colon, lung, breast, brain, stomach, and liver; leukemia; diabetes; and coronary
disease. The "China Project" studied the incidence of these illnesses in China,
noting a higher incidence in more affluent regions. In 1990 the World Health
Organization found a correlation between the incidence of heart disease, cancer,
diabetes, gallstones, dental caries, and bone and joint disease and the diets
of wealthy nations (Phalen, pp. 110-111).
Murray adds arthritis, stroke, and high blood pressure
to what he calls the "diseases of civilization." He notes the classic work
of Denis Burkitt, et al., who, in Dietary Fibre, Fibre-Depleted Foods and
Disease (Academic Press, New York City, 1985), documented stages in the
appearance of degenerative diseases among primitive peoples following their
introduction to the Western diet (Murray, The Complete Book of Juicing,
pp. 4-5). Murray says that most diseases are traceable to diet and lifestyle
(Murray, Natural Alternatives to Over-the-Counter and Prescription Drugs,
p. 32). The editors of Alternative Medicine suggest that almost all
illnesses are "reversible" (Alternative Medicine, p. xxxvii).
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and
Kidney Diseases found that Pima Indians living in southern Arizona had an
85 percent higher rate of type II (adult-onset, noninsulin-dependent) diabetes
than Pima Indians in northern Mexico. The institute attributed the difference
to the convenience-food diet and sedentary lifestyle of the Arizona Pimas
(Castleman, p. 233).
The Centers for Disease Control indicate that 54 percent
of heart disease, 37 percent of cancer, 50 percent of cerebrovascular disease,
and 49 percent of atherosclerosis can be prevented by lifestyle changes (Strohecker,
p. 4). Evans says that U.S. surgeons general have long maintained that 80
percent of disease is preventable (Evans, p. 63).
‡ In 2000 the four leading causes
of death (in order) were heart disease, cancer, stroke, and
chronic respiratory disease. Diabetes was sixth on the list,
chronic liver disease twelfth, and hypertension thirteenth
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National
Vital Statistics Report,vol. 49, no. 12, October 9, 2001,
pp. 2-3, which can be accessed at www.cdc.gov.nchs/releases/01news/mort2k.htm).
Chronic disease accounts for 70 percent of all deaths in the
United States and more than 75 percent of the national health
What attitude should spiritual care providers take toward
the philosophical differences between conventional and alternative
medicine? More important, what are the theological points of
view concerning health and disease and the respective roles
of doctor and patient? To gain a perspective on such questions,
it is helpful to turn to the witness of the tradition.
Disease, Health, and the Psychosomatic Unity
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the notions of disease, health, and healing
are intertwined with notions of the Covenant and Law, relationship to God, sin,
and evil. One is confronted with the idea of a psychosomatic unity between body
and mind because physical disease is largely (but not exclusively) viewed as
originating in the mind, which must also — and especially — be treated.
The traces of this notion of psychosomatic cause and effect
can be observed in ancient, primitive attitudes, which saw disease
as the result of hostile magic or the violation of a taboo.15
In the case of hostile magic, the cause of the sickness was
imputed to another person. In the case of taboo violation, the
sick person himself or herself was seen as responsible for the
sickness. Although the ancient Babylonians thought that some
simple illnesses resulted from natural causes, they attributed
most disease conditions to demonic forces.16
The biblical tradition attributes disease to various sources,
but most frequently to a "psychic element" rather than natural
causes.17 In Exodus (4:11) and Deuteronomy (32:39)
disease is seen as a punishment from God. In Job it is caused
by the jealousy of others (5:2) or the work of the adversary
(2:7). In the Gospel of Mark, spirits of dumbness (9:17) or
uncleanness (9:25) cause disease. In Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach),
self-indulgence is the cause (37:30-31). All of these explanations
have in common an intentional or volitional element, whether
the agent is God, the adversary, evil spirits, others, or oneself.
And yet, according to the most popular and persistent biblical
notion of disease, it is God's punishment for disobedience and
sin,18 that is, the result of personal intentions
contrary to divine intentions. Conversely, healing is understood
as a sign of divine forgiveness; health is the result of following
the divine commandments that guarantee it. This understanding
illustrates the close connection seen between disease and human
and divine relationships — but especially a shift in emphasis
to personal responsibility: Humans are responsible for cooperating
with the divine to heal disease and maintain health.
The Mosaic code specifies the actions necessary for maintaining
health, which involve staying in right relationship with God
and divine intentions. The Law treats disease prophylactically
or preventively; following the Law prevents disease by ensuring
health and right relationship with God. In fact, because Moses
was the mediator of the Law, one could be justified in considering
him the "father of preventive medicine."19 In effect,
health becomes an aspect of the Covenant, or contract, between
humans and God. Maintaining the contract ensures health, whereas
breaking it results in disease. Thus, within the context of
the code, individual responsibility remains paramount. The bestowal
of health or disease is not arbitrary on God's part but, rather,
the result of individual actions or intentions.
A closer look at the Mosaic sanitary or hygienic code reveals seven basic
principles, the most relevant of which are the Sabbath commandment and the laws
regarding edible foods.*
* The other five principles concern circumcision,
sexual relationships, sexual hygiene, cleanliness, and sanitation (George
A. Butterick, et al., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol.
2, pp. 544-546).
The Sabbath commandment was considered an important prophylactic
health measure for the whole human being — body, mind, and spirit.
It provided an opportunity for spiritual worship and mental
stimulation, as well as for the physical rest needed by a people
and society whose livelihood was predominantly pastoral and
The laws regarding edible foods are especially interesting
because of their relevance to modern-day health concerns. In
Genesis, God describes both plants and animals as food: "And
God said, see, I have given you every plant yielding seed that
is on the face of all the land, and every tree with seed in
its fruit; you shall have them for food (Gn 1:29). . . . Every
moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I give
you the green vegetables and plants, I give you everything"
(Gn 9:3). Although a vegetarian diet is not required,21
Leviticus (chapter 11) and Deuteronomy (chapter 14) limit meat
consumption to those animals "chewing the cud and parting the
hoof," animals that, the commentators note, are themselves vegetarian.22
A further restriction distinctly and emphatically forbids the
consumption of fat (Lev 3:17; 7:23-24) (and also blood). The
recommendations concerning fowl mention only those that are
prohibited: scavengers, carnivores, and birds of prey.23
And fish consumption is limited to those with fins and scales.
Crustaceans or shellfish were excluded because, feeding as they
do on decomposing matter, they were thought susceptible to disease.24
All these dietary restrictions are understood to protect the
inhabitants of a subtropical climate from the dangers of parasites
and food poisoning.25 And the emphatic prohibition
of fat is indicative of the kind of wisdom in the code that
has been affirmed by modern science today.26
Most important, the dietary code and the Sabbath commandment (as well as all
other aspects of the sanitary code) reflect the divine will to safeguard health
and protect people from illness. Health is synonymous with faith in God and
the Covenant and following the Law, whereas sickness and disease signify falling
out of relationship with God and God's intentions. The Hebrew people did not
turn to physicians for healing, nor was there a general practice of medicine;
health and disease were bound up with living in right relationship with God
and the Law (and yet a more positive evaluation of doctors and the use of medicines
appears later in the tradition).*
* Medicaments were not unknown to the ancient
Hebrews. Isaiah (1:6) speaks of treating wounds and sores with balm and oil.
The use of medicaments (and physicians) signified relief from disease, but
they were secondary to revitalizing one's relationship to God. By the time
of the writing of Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) in the second century BCE (Eccl
38:1-15), the status of both medicines and physicians is changing. God is
still the Supreme Healer, but the curative power of natural substances and
the healing power of physicians are viewed as gifts from God (Butterick, et
al., vol. 2, p. 546; vol. 3, p. 332).
The Role of Sin and Evil in Disease
The notion of individual responsibility for keeping or breaking
the Law is the link to sin's role in disease. Sin in the Old
Testament is generally understood as the state of "estrangement
or alienation from God who is the only source of well-being."27
It also signifies "missing the mark," or straying, as the result
of ignorance. And yet the most profound theological understanding
emphasizes revolt and willful disobedience from God.28
Although sin relates to keeping the Law, a moralistic approach
to the Law that focuses on keeping every "jot and tittle" is
considered degenerate. For these Hebrew writers believed that
the Law was not an end in itself but the means to maintain relationship
with God and prevent the estrangement that sin brings.29
The Hebrews located sin in the rebellious heart, the seat
of the will, and characterized it as "an act of perverted freedom."30
Although sin overpowers individuals and even enslaves their
wills, they remain ultimately responsible for it. Sin, the separation
from God, entails pain and suffering (and yet some virtuous
people — Job, for example — suffer too). And the ultimate consequence
of sin is death.† Although the Hebrew tradition tries to mitigate
sin's effects through ritual and observing the Law, in the end
the problem of sin remains unresolved.31
† Death as the ultimate penalty for sin is foreshadowed
in the warning given Adam about eating the forbidden fruit: "In the day that
you eat from it you will surely die" (Gn 2:17). After the Fall, the penalty
is pronounced as one of the curses resulting from it: "For you are dust and
to dust you return" (Gn 3:19).
The role of evil adds a complicating factor to the understanding
of health and disease. Disease itself is understood as a manifestation
of evil.32 But the origin of evil itself is not so
transparent. Evil is described as a punishment from God.33
But it is also closely associated with human sin (either synonymous
with sin34 or the direct result of sin35)
and is described as one of the "works of the devil" as well.36
Evil seen as a punishment from God is understandable in a
context in which disease is seen as a punishment from God. If
disease signifies falling out of relationship with God by breaking
the Law, abandonment by God can be seen as the "cause" of evil.
And for the ancient Hebrews of the Mosaic code, "the omnipotent
Lord" was the source of both good and evil.37 Yet,
by breaking the Law, human beings were just as responsible for
evil. In this sense they bore responsibility for the evil of
disease,38 which becomes actualized only through
sin. The Hebrews' understanding of a personalized devil or Satan
as the source of evil — whose power comes from God but is limited
and transitory (as depicted in Job) — is a late development of
Rev. R. K. Harrison has helped us clarify the relationship
between disease and evil, and the roles of their various prospective
agents, by offering a Christian interpretation of disease in
light of the ministry of Jesus.40 He notes disease's
various characteristics: It is abnormal and impairs well-being;
it reflects antagonism and conflict within the organism; and
it works in a degenerative way. Disease's key characteristic,
Harrison writes, is its parasitic nature, reflecting the fundamental
opposition between good (health and well-being) and evil (sickness).
On the material plane, disease reflects a spiritual conflict
involving the whole creation and is ultimately a reflection
of evil itself, with death as its most virulent form.
Yet from a Christian perspective, disease can never be attributed
to God as a punishment for sin. For Christ's mission is to cast
out evil in all of its forms. The Atonement involves taking
on sickness and disease in order to conquer them.‡ The healings
in the Gospels are steps along the way to the final eradication
of evil and the sin and disease associated with it. God's attitude
towards evil and disease through the work of Christ is clear — God
intends to abolish it completely, which the Victory of the Resurrection
over death ultimately signifies in its final form.
‡ Harrison combats pietistic notions that justify sickness
and suffering by relating them to "spiritual blessings" or embracing them
in imitation of Christ. Disease and suffering are tragedies that reflect sin — but
especially reflect evil, which God can never wish to perpetuate. The Atonement
is the source of hope for the ultimate conquest of sin and evil; it does not
justify sickness and suffering.
In line with the Hebrew tradition's sanitary code, Harrison
sees part of the solution to disease in an "informed prophylactic
approach to living," involving responsible attention to the
care of physical and mental needs.41 And yet he notes
the perennial, recurring problem of the entire Judeo-Christian
tradition: the human "disposition to sin," which allows disease
to take hold and proliferate.42
Harrison's reflections relate to topics discussed here: first, a psychosomatic
understanding of disease that links it to sin and evil, and, second, the question
of human or divine agency. And yet he clearly indicates that God's will is not
to punish sin through disease but to abolish disease and the sin (and evil behind
it) through Christ's healing ministry and ultimately the victory of the Cross.
A closer examination of the Christian Scriptures themselves
will help to provide further insight into the Christian understanding
of the relationship between the various parameters involved
with disease, health, and healing.
The Healing Ministry of Jesus
The first healing narrative of the synoptic Gospels affirms the divine will
for healing. In this story, a leper tells Jesus that he can heal his disease
if he wills it, to which Jesus replies: "I will; be made clean" (Mt 8:3; Mk
1:41; Lk 5:13). All subsequent healings underscore God's will to heal through
Jesus. Further issues that emerge involve the role of sin, the Sabbath healings,
the role of faith, and the incompleteness or impermanence of healing.
The role of sin comes up relatively infrequently in the healing
narratives. Jesus directly implicates sin as a factor in disease
only twice — in the cases of the paralytic lowered through the
roof ("Your sins are forgiven you" [MT 9:2; Mk 2:5; Lk 5:20])
and the man at the pool of Bethsaida ("Sin no more, lest something
worse befall you" [Jn 5:14]). The question of sin comes up once
more in the case of the man born blind (Jn 9). When the disciples
ask Jesus who (the man himself or his parents) sinned to cause
the blindness, he replies that neither sinned and that the blindness
is an opportunity for "The works of God . . . to be made manifest
in him" (Jn 9:3). Although there are other significant aspects
to this healing (which I will mention later), the point here
is that Jesus does not reject the association of disease and
sin. He simply affirms that sin is not a factor in this particular
In the various Sabbath healings,* sin does not appear to play a direct role
except in the case of the man at the pool of Bethsaida (Jn 5:1-18). And yet
the Sabbath healings are about sin in a different sense — in that breaking the
Sabbath (through the "work" of healing) signified breaking the Law, which meant
estrangement from God. But such an implication is turned on its head by Jesus'
manifestation of healing power, which can only come from an intimate relationship
with God (as indicated by Jesus himself [Jn 9:30-33]). Perhaps the deeper meaning
of the Sabbath healings is that they emphasize that the true purpose of the
Law is to maintain a state of grace, or communion with God, which is what health
in the tradition is all about. It cannot be sinful to heal on the Sabbath, because
the purpose of the Law is to maintain relationship with God and thereby to preserve
health and wholeness.
*The man with the withered hand
(MT 12:9-14; Mk 3:1-6; Lk 6:6-11); the crippled woman (Lk
13:10-17); the man with dropsy (Lk 14:1-6); the man at the
pool of Bethsaida (Jn 5:1-18); the man born blind (Jn 9:1-41).
But more significant than sin, in the Gospel's healing narratives, is the
role of faith. Eleven different stories emphasize faith, although in them the
faith of someone else is just as operative as the faith of the sick person.
In seven of the episodes,†Jesus responds to the faith of another (a
relative or friend), and in the other four,‡ healing results in response to
the faith of the sick person. Although breaking or keeping the Law determines
health and is the measure of faith in the Hebrew tradition, in the Christian
tradition faith itself becomes the guarantor of health as well as the measure
of the Law.
†The centurion's servant (MT
8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10); a paralytic (MT 9:1-18; Mk 2:1-12; Lk
5:17-26); Jairus's daughter (MT 9:18-26; Mk 5:21-43; Lk 8:40-58);
the Syrophoenician woman (MT 15:21-28; Mk 7:24-30); many sick
people (MT 15:29-32); a deaf person (Mk 7:31-37); the blind
man of Bethsaida (MT 8:22-26).
‡The woman with a discharge
(MT 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34; Lk 8:43-48); two blind men (MT 9:27-31);
the healings at Gennesaret (MT 14:34-36; Mk 6:53-56); Bartimaeus
(MT 20:29-34; Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:35-43).
The question of permanence or completeness of healing comes
up in the stories of the man at the pool of Bethsaida, the return
of the unclean spirit (MT 12:43-45; Lk 11:24-26), and the 10
lepers (Lk 17:11-19). Although Jesus heals the man at the pool,
his advice to "sin no more, lest something worse befall you"
(Jn 5:14) indicates that the lasting effect of the cure is an
open question and depends on the activity of sin. The possibility
of impermanence becomes more concrete with Jesus' saying about
the unclean spirit. For although the spirit has been cast out,
it returns with seven others, so that "the last state of that
man becomes worse than the first." The story of the 10 lepers
brings out more concretely the importance of faith in achieving
a lasting cure. When one leper returns with thanksgiving and
praising God, Jesus asks about the other nine and remarks that
"your faith has made you whole." The implication is that the
others, who have manifested no such faith, have not been made
whole or fully cured, even though they have been freed from
* Evans indicates a similar view (p. 72).
The importance of the degree of faith also becomes evident
in the course of the Gospel narratives. In the story of the
boy with a spirit (MT 17:14-21; Mk 9:14-24; Lk 9:37-43), the
apostles' "little faith" or "unbelief" prevents them from casting
out the spirit, thereby necessitating Jesus' intervention. Although
Jesus' walking on water (MT 14:22-33) does not involve a healing,
it does illustrate the saving power of faith,† especially great
faith. For when Peter attempts to follow Jesus but begins to
sink into the sea, he is admonished: "O you of little faith,
why did you doubt?" (MT 14:31). Faith appears to involve a continuum — of
small faith to great faith, weak faith to strong faith. The
implication is that more healing or salvation — bringing with
it the power to make whole — is to be found in great or more perfect
†Cherry (p. 30) notes the "symbiotic connection"
between the notions of salvation and healing expressed by the Greek word which
means "to save" but also refers to curing illness.
‡John's Gospel, which identifies Jesus as the
Logos or Divine Word, suggests that greater or more perfect faith is based
on hearing the Word rather than on seeing signs and wonders.
The theme first appears in the story of Nathaniel (1:47-49) and continues
through the following episodes: distrust of those who believe because of seeing
signs (2:24); the Samaritan woman and the Samaritans (4:1-42); the healing
of the official's son (4:46-54); promises to those who hear and believe in
God (5:24); the failure to arrest Jesus because of his words (16:29); and
doubting Thomas (20:29). Although John's Gospel was written later than the
others, thereby providing a transition for generations of Christians who could
not be eyewitnesses but only "hearers" of the Word, his emphasis on belief
based on hearing (rather than seeing) clearly implies that it is a more profound
form of faith.
The healing of the man born blind (Jn 9:1-41) has a special
significance among the Gospel healing narratives. The precipitating
cause of the blindness is not sin, nor is faith a factor in
the cure (although faith results). Both the sickness and cure
are the opportunity to "manifest God's works." The healing is
also distinguished by the use of clay, as a kind of medicinal
substance.43 Yet the episode's most important aspect
appears to be the emphasis put on the activity of the healer,
who heals to manifest God's works. In this healing in particular,
the question of the sick person's personal responsibility for
either the disease or the cure effectively disappears, while
the activity of the healer, who represents God's will for health
and healing, comes to the fore.
One final point about the Gospel healings must be reemphasized.
Jesus' healing ministry signified the overcoming of disease,
sin, and the evil that stood behind them. And yet the final
resolution of the problem they pose is not the healings themselves
but the Resurrection, which signifies victory over death — death
being the most serious manifestation of disease, sin, and evil.
Healing disease and restoring health in the Gospel narratives
are transitional steps to the ultimate goal of a complete and
permanent cure through the Resurrection.
Resolving the Debate
Now what about the debate between holistic medicine (with its emphasis on prevention)
versus physical medicine (with an emphasis on intervention)? We can, from the
preceding outline of the Judeo-Christian tradition's understanding of health
and disease, draw some conclusions about these questions on the basis of a theological
point of view.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is clearly holistic in its understanding of
health and disease. Disease and health are bound up with psycho-spiritual factors.
On the one hand, they are influenced by the relationship to God or the Divine,
as mediated by the Law, which includes natural laws.§ Breaking these
laws (summarized by the theological concept of "sin"), whether willfully or
through ignorance, leads to disease. On the other hand, disease and health are
conditioned by the power of faith and the degree to which it becomes integrated
into one's life.
§ The Law is relevant for Christians as well as
Jews. As Butterick, et al., remind us "the time-honored distinction between
the OT [Old Testament] as a book of law and the NT [New Testament] as a book
of divine grace is without grounds or justification. Divine grace and mercy
are the presuppositions of law in the OT; and the grace and love of God displayed
in the NT events issue in the legal obligations of the New Covenant. . . .
Paul's polemics against the law in Galatians and Romans are directed against
an understanding of law which is by no means characteristic of the OT as a
whole" (vol. 3, p. 77).
Elsewhere, Butterick, et al., note that "[the New Testament
documents] all affirm that the law, insofar as it is the expression of the holy
will of God, remains valid, radicalized, and at the same time relativized, by
the absolute claim of love" (vol. 3, p. 102).
But health and disease are not determined by individual psychology and spirituality
alone. Although evil in the soul (sin or lack of faith) contributes to disease,
it is also an objective spiritual reality outside the human being. Even the
righteous get sick (as witnessed by Job) and even the righteous grow old and
die. Health and disease are embedded within the psycho-spiritual conflict of
sin and faith in the soul, in the will of the adversary for sickness and disease,
but also in the will of God for health and healing. Human powers cooperate with
spiritual powers — in causing but also in curing disease.
It is evident is that the Judeo-Christian tradition resolves the question
of intervention or prevention by supporting both at the same time. The
laws governing health illustrate the prevention-oriented side. Yet Jesus, who
discourages sin and encourages faith, is also the archetype of the intervening
physician who heals in order "to manifest God's works" — God's will to heal — while
also raising the question of whether any cure can last without the living faith
in God that serves to protect health.
As René Dubos points out, the Asclepian and Hygeian approaches
to health are complementary.44 Their complementary
character can be seen in the male and female deities they embody,
as well as in the relationship between them (with Hygeia as
the daughter, wife, or sister of Asclepius, depending on which
version of the myth is being told). In fact Hippocrates, in
his famous oath, invokes both.* And although Asclepius's tradition
has become associated with conventional medicine and a materialistic
point of view, in ancient times he was revered as a god and
represented a spiritual understanding of both the cause and
cure of disease.45 The roots of both the Asclepian
and Hygeian traditions are divine, and they accord with the
two major poles in the Judeo-Christian tradition, prevention
and intervention. And yet the health care debate has served
to highlight conventional medicine's lack of appreciation for
the psychological and spiritual dimensions of disease and the
importance of prevention. This turn of events must particularly
be a cause of concern for religious health care institutions.
A neglect of any treatment parameter compromises the integrity
of the tradition, for which the call to repentance — "Change your
ways!" — is as integral as the gift of healing. Just as there
is a movement today towards notions of "blended," "integrative,"
or "complementary" medicine to describe the synthesis of both
approaches, the theological perspective also argues for the
full inclusion of both as equal partners.†
* "I swear by Apollo the physician, Aesculapius, Hygeia,
and Panacea, and all the gods and goddesses . . ." (Venes and Thomas, p. 902).
Panacea was a sister of Hygeia.
† Hence Castleman's Blended Medicine and Phalen's
Integrative Medicine. The National Institute of Health's Office of
Alternative Medicine, established by Congress in 1992, has since been renamed
the Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Many conventional health
care facilities now include complementary healing therapies such as acupuncture,
relaxation, and meditation. Alternative practitioners such as Andrew Weil
(in Health and Healing, pp. 82 and 115), Joseph Pizzorno (in Castleman,
p. 118), and others acknowledge the strengths of conventional medicine (treating
acute and infectious disease and dealing with emergencies and trauma) as well
as its weaknesses (particularly in treating chronic disease). And yet the
difference between conventional medicine's attitude toward chronic disease,
on one hand, and holistic medicine's, on the other, suggest that, in this
respect at least, the latter is more an "alternative" to the former than a
"complement" to it.
The tradition's holistic understanding also has implications for spiritual
care providers (and for other health care professionals as well). Just as Jesus
himself treated the whole human being — body, soul, and spirit — spiritual care
providers must take lifestyle issues into account; physicians should do the
same with patients' psychology and spirituality. Drawing a clear distinction
between the mind and the body and treating each separately is the attitude of
the conventional medical model; but it is the attitude of neither the holistic
model46 nor the holistic tradition. A holistic understanding poses challenges
to patients, but to health care practitioners as well.
The conventional definitions of "health" and "wellness" are holistic, in that
each implies health and well-being in both physical and mental terms.* Yet "wellness"
is the more dynamic of the two concepts and more clearly embraces lifestyle
issues (as well as hinting at the faith or spiritual dimension). In beginning
to outline a "theology of wellness," we would say that, from the theological
point of view, health involves a dynamic balance between multiple dimensions
working together. Such a conclusion is compatible not only with those produced
by the current health care debate but also, as I have tried to show in this
article, with one grounded in the tradition. The tradition may also help to
shed further light on other aspects of the continuing debate.†
* The American Heritage Dictionary
defines health as "soundness, especially of body and mind."
Wellness is defined as "the condition of good physical and
mental health, especially when maintained by proper diet,
exercise, and habits" (4th ed., Houghton Mifflin, Boston,
2000, pp. 808, 1,953). Taber's Cycopedic Medical Dictionary
defines health as "a condition in which all functions of the
body and mind are normally active" (Venes and Thomas, p. 845).
Wellness, in turn, is defined as "more than a lack of disease
symptoms; it is a state of mental and physical balance and
fitness" (Venes and Thomas, p. 2,110).
† The holistic emphasis on the
doctor as teacher finds a clear echo in the Gospels, where
Jesus is addressed as "Teacher" or "Rabbi" on numerous occasions.
As for conventional medicine's metaphor of "waging war," Scripture
is both violent and nonviolent in its imagery (for example,
the parable of the wheat and the tares in MT 13:24-30; and
the words "If your eye offends you, pluck it out" in MT 18:90).
Conventional medicine's rejection of the challenge to "do
no harm" seems disingenuous, both because of the generally
nontoxic effect of natural medicines and the fact that prevention
might obviate the need for potentially harmful interventions.
This is an issue worth further theological reflection. Weil's
emphasis on the placebo response and the powers of the mind
(in Health and Healing) is especially noteworthy because
of its correlation with the tradition's stress on the role
of faith in healing. This is another issue worth further investigation.
- See, for example, the Nurse's Handbook of Alternative Therapies,
p. 64; James Strohecker, ed., Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide,
Future Medicine Publishing, Puyallup, WA, 1994, p. 5; and Andrew Weil, Health
and Healing, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1998, p. 51.
- Nurse's Handbook of Alternative Therapies, p. 22.
- Weil, pp. 25, 37, and 47.
- Abigail Rian Evans, Redeeming Marketplace Medicine, Pilgrim Press,
Cleveland, 1999, p. 27; Weil, p. 47.
- Strohecker, p. 6; Weil, p. 114.
- Nurse's Handbook of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, p.
- Michael T. Murray, Stomach Ailments and Digestive Disturbances,
Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1997, pp. 27-28; Strohecker, p. 5.
- Strohecker, p. 8; Michael T. Murray, Natural Alternatives
to Over-the-counter and Prescription Drugs, Quill/William
Morrow, New York City, 1994, p. 30; Weil, preface, pp. 205,
232, and 273. Weil cites the body's ability to heal itself
as the main theme of his book Spontaneous Healing (Fawcett
Columbine, New York City, 1995).
- Murray, Natural Alternatives to Over-the-counter and
Prescription Drugs, p. 11. The motto "First, do no harm"
(primum non nocere) is attributed to Hippocrates (Epidemics,
bk. 1, sect. XI). It is one of Murray's four fundamental principles
of holistic and naturopathic care (the others are the healing
power of nature, identify and treat the cause, and the physician-as-teacher).
From the conventional point of view, "doing no harm" "is an
idealistic but virtually unattainable goal because there is
no medical procedure, operation, or drug that does not have
the potential for harm" (Donald Venes and Clayton L. Thomas,
eds., Taber's Cycopedic Medical Dictionary, F. A. Davis,
Philadelphia, 1997, p. 1,561).
- A review of 1994 statistics indicates that more than 100,000 Americans
died as a result of adverse drug reactions and 2.2 million were seriously
injured (Jason Lazarou, Bruce H. Pomeranz, and Paul N. Corey, "Incidence of
Adverse Drug Reactions in Hospitalized Patients," JAMA, April 15, 1998).
An Archives of Internal Medicine Report of September 9, 2002, indicates
that potentially harmful drug errors involving the administration of medication
(given at the wrong time or not at all) occur, in U.S. hospitals, on the average
of more than 40 times a day; a 1999 Institute of Medicine report estimates
that more than a million injuries and as many as 98,000 deaths result annually
from medical errors (Lindsey Tanner, Associated Press, September 9, 2002).
- Nurse's Handbook of Alternative & Complementary Therapies, p.
63. Weil writes at length in Health and Healing about the significance
of the powers of the mind and the placebo response for healing, and the implications
to be drawn from it.
- Rene Dubos, Mirage of Health, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick,
NJ, 1959, pp. 129-169. The author writes, in a frequently quoted passage,
"For the worshipers of Hygeia, health is the natural order of things, a positive
attribute to which men are entitled if they govern their lives wisely. According
to them, the most important function of medicine is to discover and teach
the natural laws which will ensure a man a healthy mind in a healthy body.
More skeptical, or wiser in the ways of the world, the followers of Asklepios
believe that the chief role of the physician is to treat disease, to restore
health by correcting any imperfections caused by accidents of birth or life"
(p. 131). Evans (p. 34) and Weil ( Health and Healing, pp. 138-139;
Spontaneous Healing, pp. 3-6) also refer to the traditions of Asclepius
- "Asclepius" and "Greek Medicine," at BBC Medicine through
- Strohecker, p. 13; Castleman, p. 116; and Murray, Natural
Alternatives to Over-the-counter and Prescription Drugs,
pp. 32-33. Murray notes that the primary meaning of the word
doctor (Latin: docere) is "teacher." The doctor-as-teacher
is one of his basic health care principles (see note 9).
- George A. Butterick, et al., eds., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the
Bible, vol. 1, Abingdon Press, New York City and Nashville, TN, 1962,
- Butterick, p. 848.
- Butterick, vol. 2, p. 542.
- Butterick, pp. 541, 543. Considering the intent of the Sabbath commandment
to provide rest for a physically active people, one can ask whether a modern-day
version might include physical activity for the physically inactive.
- Butterick, p. 543.
- Butterick, pp. 543-544.
- Reginald Cherry, The Bible Cure, Harper, San Francisco, 1998, p.
- Butterick, p. 544. Today shellfish are considered unhealthy because they
concentrate heavy metals (Cherry, p. 26).
- Cherry, pp. 19-20.
- Butterick, vol. 4, pp. 361-362.
- Butterick, p. 361.
- Butterick, p. 363.
- Butterick, p. 365.
- Butterick, p. 367.
- Butterick, vol. 1, p. 849.
- Butterick, vol. 2, p. 182.
- Butterick, vol. 4, p. 365.
- Butterick, p. 451.
- Butterick, vol. 1, p. 849; see also 1 Jn 3:8.
- Butterick, vol. 2, p. 542. The Hebrews, thinking of God as the source of
both good and evil (including disease), saw that idea as an advance over those
of other ancient peoples because, unlike those peoples, they no longer attributed
disease to magic or hostile spirits.
- Butterick, vol. 4, p. 451.
- R. K. Harrison, "A Christian Interpretation of Disease," The Churchman,
vol. 62, no. 4, 1953, pp. 220-227.
- Harrison, p. 226.
- Cherry, p. 13; Evans, p. 100.
- Dubos, p. 131.
- "Asclepius," BBC Medicine through Time.
- Nurse's Handbook of Alternative & Complementary Therapies, p.
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