Hungering for answers
Washington — Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
THESE words in the book of James in the New Testament today ring with gathering force and challenge for Christianity.
The hungering of Christians for a vital faith that answers humanity's deepening needs is invigorating interest in apostolic healing. Changing theological beliefs as well as medical researches into the relationship of mind and body are also providing an impetus for this interest.
Though often with hesitant footsteps, growing numbers of Christians today are beginning to explore the biblical promise of healing as an integral part of Christian practice. They are embracing with increasing conviction a sense of God's goodness, a view that He does not capriciously afflict humanity with sickness and other ills.
At the same time, despite a growing openness to healing and a deepening respect for the healing ministry of Jesus, many issues remain unresolved. Today's social and intellectual climate is producing an intense exploration of various healing approaches and methods and a groping for clearer theological definitions.
Faced by many crosscurrents of thought, the field of Christian healing at the moment seems to be in a state of flux, uncertain which of many paths to follow.
``American religion is churning - madly and fascinatingly - and is frustratingly confused,'' comments Lutheran theologian Richard J. Neuhaus, discussing developments in the healing movement.
Behind the stir lies a quest for answers to fundamental questions: What is the place of healing in Christian practice? What is its purpose? Should medicine be allowed to take over the healing function of the Christian church? How is one to distinguish between the genuine and the fake? Has the charismatic movement unduly shaped public perception of healing? Does Christian healing require a wholly different view of reality?
As those of Christian faith wrestle with these issues, the very direction of Christian healing is being decided.
According to church historians, significant changes have occurred since the Monitor published a series on Christian healing in 1979. The trends they note are these:
The interface of medicine and religion is enlarging. Medical researches into the mind-body relationship and the growing interest of physicians in the role of prayer and faith are exerting a strong influence on religious attitudes, confirming what clergy have intuitively acted upon in their healing ministries.
The vast majority of mainline Christian churches, viewing medicine as one means of God's healing power, are working ever more closely with the medical community. Almost all Christian healing is combined with medical treatment.
``Almost everyone in the mainline churches supports medicine,'' says church historian Martin Marty. ``So church energies go into support of health-care technology.''
The charismatic movement, which focuses on healing as one of the ``gifts of the Spirit'' and which has grown to millions of adherents in the United States, appears to have stabilized in the US and may be on the wane. Although the charismatics have broken into virtually every mainline or traditional denomination, most notably the Roman Catholic Church, they have not implanted their emotional worship style on the mainline congregations at large.
But the charismatic movement has had an impact on the healing field. It is also expanding dramatically in Africa, Asia, and Latin American; estimates reach more than 100 million members worldwide.
The mainline Protestant denominations, still clinging to orthodox religious views and uncomfortable with the emotionalism and simple theology of the charismatic movement, continue to resist the idea of using prayer for physical healing. At the same time, more healing services are taking place, and there is a heightened sense among some pastors that the Christian churches must come to terms with the healing dimension of biblical teaching.
The Christian Science Church, which has given a strong impetus to Christian healing in the modern era, faces a number of challenges, including legal prosecution of members in several states. But the church continues to build a solid record of healings through reliance on prayer.
THE interest in Christian healing (or spiritual healing, as some term it) is by no means new. In the centuries following the apostolic era there have been sporadic efforts, largely by inspired individuals, to emulate the works of the founder of Christianity.
In the late 19th century Christian healing came to prominence with the establishment of the Church of Christ, Scientist, a denomination dedicated to the linkage of theology and practical healing. Many clergy today acknowledge the historical role of the church's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, in arousing the churches to New Testament healing.
``Mary Baker Eddy went to each church to get healing accepted and was forced out the door,'' says Morton Kelsey, an Episcopalian priest and a leading authority on Christian healing. ``So she founded her own.''
In a keynote sermon published in 1880, Mrs. Eddy said: ``We have asked, in our selfishness, to wait until the age advanced to a more practical and spiritual religion before arguing with the world the great subject of Christian healing; but our answer was, `Then there were no cross to take up, and less need of publishing the good news.'''
Awakened to the possibilities of the biblical promise, other Christian churches began to explore apostolic healing. At the turn of the century, healing spread more widely in the Christian church with the rise of Pentecostalism and a number of healing movements, including New Thought, the Emmanuel Movement, and the Protestant sacramental healing and pastoral counseling movements.
These, in turn, were followed by the charismatic renewal of the 1960s, a movement that was aimed at a ``renewing'' of the Christian churches and focused on healing. Media interest in the charismatic renewal grew as the healing movement spread across denominational lines.
AT work behind this remarkable historical development are a number of factors, among them the changes that have taken place and continue to take place in theological thinking.
For instance, the centuries-old theory of ``dispensationalism,'' the view that New Testament healing was intended only for a brief period of time in order to prove Jesus' Messiahship, is beginning to lose ground. Today many Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, believe that Jesus' command to ``heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils'' was meant for every age and people. The conviction thus grows that prayer and God play at least some role in the healing of sickness.
Also starting to lose its hold is the orthodox view that God sends pain and suffering for man's benefit. A larger sense of God's goodness is being felt and conveyed.
``God wills wholeness, and wholeness is salvation,'' says the Rev. Vernon Stoop, pastor of the Shepherd of the Hills United Church of Christ in Bechtelsville, Pa. ``Disease is dis-ease, dis-harmony with the laws of God, being out of tune with God's laws of the universe and God's will.''
The understanding of sin is also undergoing change. It has long been felt that sin leads to suffering, often in the form of sickness. But only recently have many healing ministries come to believe that the healing of sin, such as anger or envy or resentment, can lead to healing of the body. Prayers are offered to overcome such negative states and to discover a new ``inner self'' made in God's likeness.
``God waits to change us into His likeness,'' says Methodist evangelist Tommy Tyson, who runs a healing retreat center near Chapel Hill, N.C. ``It is through the fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, patience - that we grow into the likeness of God.''
Another element that has made the growth of Christian healing possible is the age's increasing embrace of mental factors. The effect that thought has on the body is hardly new to those involved in Christian healing. In the late 19th century there was considerable exploration of and stir over the issue. Since that time the rapid expansion of psychology and those branches of medicine that take into account the interaction of mind and body is making it publicly acceptable to admit the possibility of mental factors in healing.
While this is a subject of ongoing battles in the medical community, the trend is welcomed by many clergy as reinforcing their own convictions.
``Twenty years ago, most were totally skeptical of any relevance of a spirit world or a mind world to the body,'' says Lawrence DenBesten, provost and professor of medicine at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. ``This change has resulted in a wide acceptance that mind and body are absolutely joined; that to understand one, one must understand the other.''
Still another, and perhaps most significant, factor providing an impetus for Christian healing is the hunger for it. The age in fact seems to be beckoning to a more thoughtful consideration of Jesus' mandate to heal.
The social, economic, and cultural turmoil of the times, anxiety about nuclear annihilation, and the growing secularization of Western society are forcing a reexamination of people's religious faith.
In the midst of a drenching materialism, with its drug culture, obsession with sexuality, and numbing violence, can be found a widespread desolation of the human spirit and a searching for the meaning of life and a sense of self-worth. Those attracted to charismatic and other groups tell of deep hurts and a spiritual emptiness that drove them to seek healing and a personal faith.
Comments Cecil Melvin Robeck Jr., assistant dean for academic programs at the Fuller seminary: ``People are spiritually hungry and looking for answers, for someone to do something. There's an understanding that even materialism and the scientific revolution have not answered our questions. We're still stuck with `Who am I? Why?'''
This yearning for spirituality, as well as the opening up of thought as the result of changing attitudes toward theology in the light of new experience, is impelling Christians to become increasingly involved in healing. Today many healings are attested to by Christians of various denominations and persuasions. Reported largely in religious pamphlets and periodicals and at prayer meetings, the healings receive little attention in the popular news media. But religious observers acknowledge that something is taking place.
`I'M amazed at how much healing is going on,'' says Deborah C. Glik, a sociologist at the University of South Carolina, who has conducted research on healing groups. ``It's not advertised and there aren't any neon signs, but there's a core of people committed to it.''
Healing conferences and retreats are attracting tens of thousands of Christians in the United States and other Western countries. Almost 4,000 people of various denominations attended the ``Healing '87'' conference organized by John Wimber's Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, Calif., last July.
Prayer and Bible-study groups, held quietly in homes and often independently of churches, have become institutionalized. Roman Catholics alone have some 10,000 charismatic prayer groups in the US.
Although the number of new book titles on Christian healing appears to have dropped off in the past couple of years, the dozens of books on the subject have wide readership. David Seamands's ``Healing for Damaged Emotions'' has sold half a million copies. Mr. Wimber's new book, ``Power Healing,'' sold 30,000 copies in the first month.
WHILE statistics are hard to verify, it is clear that substantial healing has been going on since the turn of the century and even more since 1960, indicating that medicine alone is not satisfying people's needs.
David G. Bromley, an anthropologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, helped conduct a survey in 1984 of some 580 mainline Christians in the Richmond area about their use of prayer in dealing with physical illness.
He and fellow researchers found that 14 percent had experienced a healing of a ``serious disease or physical condition'' which they attributed to prayer. Among the conditions reported healed were influenza, cancer, back problems, broken bones, kidney problems, appendicitis, and tuberculosis.
A sign of the growing ``respectability'' of Christian healing is the fact that a handful of scholars are now researching the subject, although their studies so far are cursory. One sociologist observes that the focus on healing in the Christian Church is now being addressed seriously because it is not just the poor and uneducated who are attending charismatic and other services, but teachers, lawyers, and engineers.
Today's trends, which will be amplified in other articles in this series, point to the complex nature of the healing movement.
Within the ``ministry of healing,'' as most clergy refer to Christian healing or healing by spiritual means, is to be found a vast array of approaches. These range from quiet bedside prayers to demonstrative services accompanied by such physical phenomena as being ``slain in the Spirit'' (i.e., falling backward with a kind of shock administered by a touch on the forehead).
Further complicating the contemporary picture is the interest of many people in so-called New Age ``mental healing'' therapies, such as the system called ``A Course of Miracles.'' Most of these therapies are outside the context of Christianity, however, employing such Eastern-style practices as visualization and mystical meditation.
``We're seeing a collapse of the dogma of the Enlightenment - in the social sciences, the hard sciences, theology, and philosophy,'' says the Rev. Mr. Neuhaus, director of the Rockford Institute Center on Religion and Society in New York, of today's eclectic phenomena.
``The secular definition, which was materialistic and reductionist, held sway for more than 200 years over the minds of educated people. But it is losing its hold and all sorts of things are breaking loose.''
IF Christendom confronts a confusing spectrum of healing methods and practices, and if many questions remain unanswered, it is healings themselves, rather than rhetoric, that show some of the forward paths people are moving in and will help resolve the issues.
One heartwarming example is that of a Christian woman who had multiple sclerosis and was given little time to live by the physicians as her speech, sight, and coordination deteriorated. Despite the physical evidence, she clung to her faith in God's love.
``We loved and believed in His love, simply because the word said so,'' she was quoted as saying in a report in the Witbank News, a South African newspaper.
``Finally, I believed that I was healed although there was no outward manifestation of this. I believed on the basis of His scripture that says - `By his stripes we are healed!'''
After two years of prayer, bedridden the entire time, she awoke one day ``totally well without a symptom of illness,'' and had no need to convalesce.
``I am so grateful for the test, for the pain, because now I know that He is really `love,' and that I can trust His word quite independently of experience,'' she told the reporter.