During the several years I suffered from chronic ankle pain, I tried almost everything – orthopedic doctors, chiropractors, physical therapy, nutritionists, healing prayer, herbalists, traditional Chinese medicine, and more. Like the people described in Candy Gunther Brown's book on Christians and alternative medicine, I found myself increasingly drawn to forms of alternative medicine that incorporate some element of spirituality into treatment of the body.
In her interview with CT, Brown warns that Christians who involve themselves in alternative medicine for health benefits can unwittingly immerse themselves in unwanted religious associations. Similar warnings have issued from others about the potential for practices such as yoga or acupuncture being occult or idolatrous.
These are important conversations. But they don't address the reason so many Christians are turning to these alternative treatments. Why are we so attracted to yoga, acupuncture, and the like? As people of faith, we recognize that we are multidimensional beings. We know that we are more than just a body, but exist as bodies, minds, and spirits, and all parts of us need attention.
Conventional Western medicine fails miserably at considering this holistic view. So engrossed with what can be numerically measured and scientifically proven, it often neglects the human spirit, treating patients as bundles of body parts and malfunctioning cells sitting in an isolated exam room. To be sure, there are individual doctors whose compassion and care challenge the system, but as a whole the system leaves little room for the time and heart it takes to treat patients holistically.
There is no doubt that the advances of modern medicine have vastly improved our quality of life and life span. I worry, however,that Western medicine itself can become idolatrous if it causes us to rely solely on scientific certainty and our own ability to master the human body instead of humbly admitting that we don't know and can't fix everything.
Many Christian responses to physical maladies are equally unsatisfying. In my own experience, when Christians come up against untreatable ailments and our prayers for healing go unanswered, we tend to chalk it up to some kind of spiritual deficiency. "Are you harboring unforgiveness?" one prayer minister asked me when I told her about my unresolved chronic pain issues.
It's true that our spiritual and emotional conditions affect our bodies, and it's a step in the right direction to realize these associations. When carried too far, though, we can end up spiritualizing everything, neglecting the real need to treat our bodies. The recent death of a second child due to one faith-healing couple's refusal to seek medical treatment is an extreme example of this.
We are faced with inadequate options all around. On one end, Western medicine treats the body without attending to the soul. On the other, the faith community prioritizes the soul while often neglecting the body. It's no wonder that many people, including Christians, have sought healing through alternative medicine.
We find alternative medicine compelling because it takes the whole person into account. Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, recognizes that emotions and personalities have physical manifestations. Yoga works on revitalizing the mind and spirit as well as the body. In seeking out these alternative practices, people are voicing a deep need for holistic medicine – medicine that doesn't break us into disparate component parts that have no relation to each other.
Most forms of holistic medicine have roots in Eastern religions. For Christians, that can be cause for concern, but also raises the question: Why haven't similar practices come out of Christianity? The incarnation of Jesus Christ and his resurrection in a human body—a body (not just a spirit) who now sits at the right hand of God the Father—makes it abundantly clear that we are not just souls that happen to be trapped in bodies, but integrated bodies-minds-souls. To treat one part without treating the others is shortsighted and ultimately dehumanizing.
There are many reasons for the lack of Christian options for holistic medicine, including a continuing Gnosticism, which sees matter and spirit in opposition, and a fear of anything that might be construed as "new age-y," which alternative medicine often is.
Opening the door to unwanted spiritual forces through alternative medicine is a valid concern. I'm not, however, calling for a superficial Christian adaptation of alternative medicine, such as "Christian yoga" or "Christian qigong," in the same way that Christians have taken up other elements of pop culture and simply changed the language slightly. Instead, I'm challenging the church and individual members to think deeply – with our bodies as well as our minds – about what it would look like to faithfully treat the whole person in any form of healing we undertake.
Protestants in particular have dropped the ball in this area. As Brown mentions in her interview with CT, Protestants are word-centered. Not only does this create a blind spot in how we regard religions that emphasize practice and experience, as she points out, it can also create a wedge between our own belief and experience. We tend to work out our faith largely in our minds, disconnected from what our bodies feel.
As a result, we live compartmentalized lives. We go to the doctor to treat our bodies. We go to church to treat our souls. We might go to the psychiatrist to treat our minds. All the while, by neglecting the connections between our bodies, minds, and souls, we walk around feeling less-than-whole in our search for healing. Which is why a deeper conversation on holistic medicine is needed.
What emerges from this conversation will be as diverse as the body of Christ. For Christian doctors, it might mean having the courage to stand up to an efficiency- and profit-driven medical system by actually taking the time to get to know patients for who they are outside of their illnesses. For Christians who do use forms of alternative medicine, it might mean recognizing that our spirits as well as our bodies are engaged, then discerning what is in line with God's truth and what isn't about these practices and seeking out (or even offering) "theologically filtered" (as our Christian doula called it) versions.
For Christian massage therapists, doulas, dancers, nutritionists, etc., it might mean contributing our unique gifts of attending to the body to the ministry of the church and teaching others what it means to honor the body. For churches, it might mean opening up a space for dialogue about medical issues of all sorts, from mental health to eating disorders to alternative medicine, as well as encouraging members to practice their gifts and share their experiences in this area.
Christ, the great physician himself, was and is a practitioner of holistic medicine. He saw each person he encountered for the whole of who they were, simultaneously treating body, mind, and spirit. He used creative means to heal people, from prayer and fasting to making a spit-dirt salve, based on their unique situations. May his Spirit guide us as we serve as his hands and feet for healing in our broken world.
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