Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Anthropological Dimension of a Patient's Treatment

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Anthropological Dimension of a Patient's Treatment

Article excerpt


Anthropological approaches to health, healing and wholeness can help us to understand better the cultural challenges of a Christian healing ministry today.

I read carefully the two reports that we have received recently by e-mail (1).

When one speaks about health as a justice issue, I include the respect for the culture and the religion of a patient (in hospital) or of a suffering person (in the community).

As Westerners, we have a culture based on the myth of development as a "catching up" process, and we hardly accept that other cultures could have another understanding of what we call progress. Many people who struggle to survive need to be rooted in their cultural and spiritual traditions in order to survive. The churches can only fulfil their vocation of healing and compassion if they are able to engage respectfully in cross-cultural encounters.

As the 1980 "Healing and wholeness" document already mentioned makes clear, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has a holistic understanding of health: "A dynamic state of well-being of the individual and society; of physical, mental, spiritual, economic, political and social well-being; of being in harmony with each other, with the material environment, and with God" (2). According to this understanding, a Christian needs a holistic concern and care for suffering people that includes a very deep respect for their cultures. We read in the same report that we need caring communities to meet sick people in their specific suffering. We need deeper relationships and quality of life. We need models that are not dominated by medical (Western) thinking. These things may also concern a variety of cultures of disability (3).

As a consequence, we need to look more carefully at the important dimension of "cultural suffering". This is part of a holistic conception of the healing ministry of the church. It helps to identify the very roots of some illnesses and despair.

Hereby, I share with you part of a lecture addressed to health-professionals (in medical schools, nurses' schools, training for chaplains, etc.) that I hope will be useful for achieving a better understanding of the healing ministry of the church.

I. Cultural identity

To understand the importance of the influence of culture on health, it is good to give a definition of culture. In the vision of culture of the humanist or elitist type, culture is especially interested in the most outstanding artistic, philosophical or literary productions, as well as the important scientific and technical discoveries of society. From this viewpoint, there would be "cultured" persons (those who have access to knowledge), and others who would "not have any culture". This vision is obviously restrictive. By contrast, an anthropological definition of culture shows that there is no society or individual without culture. Marcello Azevedo, a Brazilian Jesuit, defines culture as the particular social dynamism through which a human group lives, feels, relates, organizes, celebrates and communicates life. Culture is actualized by the way in which the members live and express themselves in their concrete reality. The cultural group adapts itself to its environment, has relationships with others, and it orients and determines the sense the individual member gives to his life, to his action and to his communication. The idea of adaptation reflects the fact that a culture is a dynamic reality, continuously in evolution and in a moving balance. Culture is therefore a way to be in the world, to understand it, to humanize it, and to communicate with and organize the different members of the group. Culture represents an important part of a person's identity. Indeed, the young human being, when born, is the most powerless living being in the world. Totally dependent on his mother for everything, and unable to grab by himself his mother's breast, he is subjected to a cultural apprenticeship from his first cry. …

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