An Integrated Perspective on Spiritual and Medical Healing

flower (tile)

+ This article responds to “Pneuma and Pneumonia: Reconsidering the Relationship Between Spiritual and Medical Healing

I appreciate Dr. Warren’s reflection on the potential complementary relationship between medical and spiritual healing. Her central points highlighting the complex nature of health, illness, and healing and noting the varied depictions of these dimensions in the Bible will be a starting point for my response. I agree with her first major point emphasizing the complexity of these dimensions. She adds that as medicine and science incorporate more complex interactional models that even include a consideration of the spiritual life of persons, some of us are steeped in religious traditions that promote binary positions.

When people become sick, they often wonder: Why am I sick? One way of understanding this question is a consideration of cultural perspectives on illness. Ethnic, regional, educational, and spiritual factors are some dimensions that may influence the response to this question. Spiritual attributions include perceptions that illness is a consequence of sin or that illness might have divine or demonic causation. Theodicy also informs the response to this question, as some Christians ask: Why has God allowed or caused this and what is his role in my suffering? While Dr. Warren’s primary focus is on the process of healing, she appropriately begins with causation and raises some of these questions. One of the challenges of spiritual attributions is that for some who believe that God has sovereign control over illness and health, the response is an active collaborative engagement with God that might involve engagement with medical treatment. For others, this control could be associated with a more passive resignation that might include sole reliance on God and/or withdrawal from or avoidance of medical treatment.1

Dr. Warren decries the dichotomy that some Christians experience between medical treatment and divine healing. A helpful contribution of her essay is that she seeks to understand how this binary choice has emerged and argues for a both/ and approach to the relationship between spiritual healing and medicine. I agree with the direction of her argument, but I would like to make a stronger case for integration of these perspectives. Dr. Warren limits the focus of her essay to illness rather than suffering, and also focuses on North American evangelicalism. While I appreciate the importance of narrowing one’s focus in such a brief essay, I would argue that insights from traditional non-Western cultures, such as African as well as Eastern, might offer helpful perspectives on a more integrated view of healing as a blended approach that includes well-tested knowledge of herbal medicine and spirituality. Does even a both/and perspective still emphasize the distinctions between these two rather than their interconnectedness?

In my advocacy of naturopathy, I am particularly appreciative of her point regarding the potential for the body to recover. God has designed our bodies with this amazing capacity for healing. As she discusses the complexity of illness and references a more holistic approach to medical treatment, she advocates for a view of medicine that treats the whole person, not simply the presenting symptoms. She emphasizes the importance of medical interventions that affect lifestyles. Assessments and interventions that encompass the spiritual dimensions of patients’ lives are also critical for healing. The introduction of a curriculum on spirituality in medical education that was funded by the John Templeton Foundation in the 1990s reflected an increasing recognition of the importance of physicians’ addressing the spiritual needs of patients and extending the biopsychosocial2 to a biopsychosocial-spiritual model.3 While others coined the term, Sulmasy argues for a deeper consideration of this perspective that is highlighted in the care of the terminally ill:

What genuinely holistic health care means then is a system of health care that attends to all of the disturbed relationships of the ill person as a whole, restoring those that can be restored, even if the person is not thereby completely restored to perfect wholeness. A holistic approach to healing means that the correction of the physiological disturbances and the restoration of the milieu interior is only the beginning of the task. Holistic healing requires attention to the psychological, social, and spiritual disturbances as well. As Teilhard de Chardin5 puts it, besides the milieu interior, there is also a milieu divin. Furthermore, this means that at the end of life, when the milieu interior can no longer be restored, healing is still possible, and the healing professions still have a role. Broadly construed, spiritual issues arise naturally in the dying process. In a sense, these are the obvious questions—about meaning, value, and relationship.4

I appreciated Dr. Warren’s more comprehensive discussion of healing in the Bible as not simply individual healing from physical illness, but also including recovery from mental illness and deliverance from demonic possession, as well as communal ills and collective evil. The expectation of healing is easily understood given the many examples of Jesus healing the sick, but perhaps we overemphasize the healing as an end rather than realizing that the resulting health was a secondary outcome to demonstrating the power and glory of God. God is not glorified because he heals, but his power is manifested in the authority and capacity for healing. Healing, though desirable, is not the end. Our recognition of his power and commitment to follow him is the desired outcome.

Her presentation of a non-dichotomous approach to Christianity and medical science reflects a reunification process that followed an unholy separation of Christianity and medical science. Spiritual and medical healing can work together harmoniously. Her presentation of pneuma and pneumonia highlights the overlapping, common, and yet distinctive aspects of spiritual and medical healing.

1. A. D. Abernethy, T. R. Houston, M. M. Magat, H. Arnold, R. L. Gorsuch, and J. P. Bjorck, “Recruiting African American Men in Cancer Screening Studies: Applying a Culturally Based Model,” Health Education and Behavior 32, no. 4 (2005): 441–51.
2. G. L. Engel, “The Need for a New Medical Model: A Challenge for Biomedicine,” Science 196, no. 4286 (1977): 129–36.
3. A. R. Hatala, “Towards a Biopsychosocial-Spiritual Approach in Health Psychology: Exploring Theoretical Orientations and Future Directions,” Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health 15, no. 4 (2013): 256–76; D. E. King, Faith, Spirituality and Medicine: Toward the Making of a Healing Practitioner (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Pastoral Press, 2000); D. D. McKee and J. N. Chappel, “Spirituality and Medical Practice,” Journal of Family Practice 35, no. 201 (1992): 205–8.
4. D. P. Sulmasy, “A Biopsychosocial-Spiritual Model for the Care of Patients at the End of Life,” The Gerontologist 42, no. 3 (2002): 24–33.
5. P. Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper, 1960).