Faith as Wellness Technique?

Book cover
Heal Thyselfby By Joel James Shuman and Keith G. MeadorOxford University Press. 174p $25

Not long ago, I heard several chaplains of a major U.S. children’s hospital speak on “spirituality and medicine.” After a review of recent scientific studies linking prayer, faith and physical health, one of the speakers gasped, “When I hear such exciting news, all I can say is: Wow.” As it turned out, he had more to say, mostly about how clergy now had objective data supporting their role in the “health care team.” While I know this particular Lutheran minister to be sincere, conscientious and pastorally astute, I still couldn’t help wondering if faith as “wellness technique” was really what Luther had in mind while writing his Commentary on Galatians.

That many North American Christians uncritically welcome claims that “faith” or “spirituality” might serve as an efficient cause of wellness is hardly surprising, given the current cultural soup of theological semiliteracy, individualist utilitarianism and anxiety over the fetish called health. What is surprising is that until now, no serious book-length theological critique of this phenomenon existed. That is why the contribution by Joel Shuman, a former physical therapist with a Ph.D. in theology, and Keith Meador, a psychiatrist with postgraduate theological training, is so welcome.

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Shuman and Meador neither deny the possibility of miracles nor the validity of intercessory prayer. They acknowledge that “the health and healing of individual persons are and always have been significant concerns in Christianity. Yet these concerns have always been understood to occupy a particular, limited place within the tradition’s larger concern for its members to participate fully in the entire scope of God’s redemptive work toward all creation.” Christians, they assert, should evaluate truth claims as members of a particular tradition-shaped community called together by God and shaped by common stories and practices—a hard sell in contemporary North America. Shaped by powerful forces of consumerism, individualism and fragmentation within communities and traditions, both medicine and religion today are, they show, increasingly understood as means to a desired set of ends.

The authors describe in various ways how religious faith and medical practice, often estranged, have reached a “rapprochement” that is based less in “theological conviction than in therapeutic utility.” In the densest chapter of the book, they trace the genealogy of a generic concept of religion, separate from communal practices and shared belief, leading to Ludwig Feuerbach’s notion of God as that projected being which fulfills human desires. They then turn to social anthropology, using Marx’s critique of bourgeois Christianity as servant to the existing social order—in our case, consumer commodification, a development Marx could hardly have predicted. Reinforced by individualism, social narcissism and therapeutic models, the commodification of all aspects of North American life replaces the practices of worshiping communities with thin simulacra of devotion aimed at acquiring certain products, one of which is health.

Any sustainable Christian response, Shuman and Meador insist, must begin with Christians living as members of a particular community—the body of Christ—irreducible to merely one expression among many of a generic human religion. The authors describe a right ordering of affections and desires (resembling Augustine’s Ordo Amorum). They ask Christians to understand health as one among many ordered goods. Sickness and death are enemies, but never ultimate enemies. Our love of bodily health within God’s good creation should remain properly subordinate to our love of God manifested in the person of Jesus. “When we imagine,” they say, “that God exists to give us what we want, to extend our lives and increase our vigor and always and everywhere to deliver us from sickness and suffering, we imagine a deity other than the one present to the world in Jesus of Nazareth.” Rather than demanding that God give us health and give it now, we are encouraged to live in apocalyptic hope, awaiting the wholeness God is making present to the community gathered in Jesus’ name.

If all that sounds hopelessly theological and abstract, Shuman and Meador use literary examples, particularly Wendell Berry’s novel A Place on Earth, to illustrate how such lives might be shaped. With Berry, the authors share a conviction that actions carried out in community, such as caring for the sick, are fundamentally political, and that health is found, however fleetingly, only in common, within a network of shared practices. As the Feltner family accepts the death of their son in World War II, Berry’s readers observe the difficult grace of living together in eager longing for wholeness, so different from my daily adventures in the hospital with its frenetic rush to fix individuals as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Many North American Christians might object to the picture Shuman and Meador paint. Is Christianity in the post-industrial West really so compromised? Has medicine become that utilitarian? Perhaps the rapprochement of faith and medicine is a necessary corrective to a regrettable parting of ways. If the language of medicine has expanded to permit recognition of religious beliefs, isn’t that an improvement? But in conversation with other doctors and medical students, I find my beliefs are, in their eyes at least, terribly private and individualized, becoming “social” or “political” only through voluntary associations, thus rendering equally significant (to my students) the church, the Rotary International and the A.A.R.P.

When my medical students read Wendell Berry, most find him incomprehensible or, worse, ignorant and passé. “We already know all about holistic medicine,” they plead. But do they? Do I? Would I recognize a healthy community if I fell into one? Does my church, universal or local, offer any witness of the shared life Berry describes, making legitimate political claims upon me and my profession?

Perhaps Heal Thyself has arrived too late. Perhaps medicine and Christianity as communal disciplines, at least in North America, are already so attenuated that consumer models alone can survive. As someone struggling to be faithful to my vocations as a Christian and a physician, I hope not.

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