Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion and Healing

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion and Healing

Article excerpt

The century worries that people may, on the basic of scientific reports indicating a link between religion and health, begin using religion for utilitarian reasons, i.e., in order to achieve better health and longer life, rather than for more valid reasons--i.e., responding to a higher spiritual call to deepen one's faith, regardless of health consequences ("Faith's benefits," Jan. 27).

Such "use" of the findings would be sad. I believe that the urge to respond to a higher spiritual call may have its origins in the suffering of unfulfilled human need. Consider the sick medical or psychiatric patient who is lying in a hospital bed, struggling with physical or emotional pain, fearful and anxious, feeling isolated and alone, plagued by a sense that his or her life has lost its purpose and significance. It is precisely in such circumstances that many of us begin to realize our finiteness and limitations, which then give rise to spiritual needs and strivings.

For many years, however, if a doctor or nurse talked with patients about their religious or spiritual needs, that health professional might lose his or her job because religion was not felt to be relevant to health care. There was little scientific evidence that religion had anything to do with health, and if there was an effect, many health professionals believed that it was a negative one. While there was always the chaplain, this service has often been viewed by health providers and hospital administrators as a fringe benefit--not an essential, integral part of health care. And in today's atmosphere of managed care and cost containment, the chaplain is likely to become the first casualty of a streamlined health care system.

We need systematic studies demonstrating a possible link between religious involvement, health and use of health services so that the religious and spiritual needs of patients do not continue to go unnoticed and unmet. While research on the religion-health relationship unfortunately may be used by some for utilitarian purposes, are not the spiritual strivings of even the loftiest among us to some extent self-serving? Whether they are or not, one thing is certain--we must not deprive the sick of the spiritual support and comfort on which their hope, health and well-being may hinge.

Harold G. Koenig

Center for the Study of Religion/ Spirituality and Health, Durham, N. C.

We are puzzled that the CENTURY felt "irritated" and "ambivalent" about recent research reports on "faith's benefits." Because faith is in "things unseen," we agree that scientific research is incapable of testing fundamental truth claims. Intriguing connections between faith and happiness, and forgiveness and health, cannot prove God's existence or validate the gospel. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if Christianity is untrue, no honest person will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if true, every honest person will want to believe it, even if it offers no measurable help at all.

But why this defensiveness about research that is finally considering some of the ways our faith affects our lives? Aren't we curious whether the faith experience--of shalom, of grace, of models for living, of supportive faith communities, of the promise of wholeness in the face of brokenness--has implications for our emotional and physical well-being? …

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