The blending of religion and medicine

WILLIAM STANDISH REED, a large man wearing a white doctor's smock over a pair of neatly pressed jeans, talks earnestly of the need to bring Christianity into the operating room. ``Our goal is to see doctors come alive for Christ and hospitals to be more compassionate,'' he says in the reception room of the Christian Medical Foundation here. ``How well do we care for the comatose? We have lost the moral thrust of medicine in our society.''

Dr. Reed, a general surgeon and ``Holy Ghost-believing'' Episcopalian, is founder and director of the Christian Medical Foundation (CMF), an organization that brings together physicians and nurses who believe that Christian prayer is a powerful force in the healing of sickness and who pray for their patients along with administering medical treatment. Founded in 1962, today CMF has some 3,500 members and a number of chapters in the United States and Canada.

Although most in the medical profession look dimly on the practice of what Reed calls ``Logo-Psychosomatic Medicine,'' the activities of the foundation are symbolic of a growing trend in the field of Christian healing: the blending of medicine and religion.

Not only are many Christian physicians discovering the effectiveness of prayer in fostering physical healing, but doctors and medical researchers in general are paying more attention to the mental and religious aspects of health care. They're looking closely at the role of attitudes, emotions, and religious faith in the recovery of patients.

In essence, the separation between the secular and the sacred in medicine appears to be diminishing.

``I've been in medicine 30 years and there's been an incredible change,'' says Lawrence DenBesten, professor of medicine at Fuller Theological Seminary and a practicing surgeon. ``The use of prayer in medicine is not a groundswell, but there is a willingness to recognize nonscientific interventions. Physicians are no longer bothered about using things whose mechanisms aren't understood.

``In my years in medical practice there are many concrete examples where I would have to give prayer the credit for the outcome, rather than my own intervention as a physician.''

Many doctors who want to make prayer a part of medical practice belong to a still larger organization, the Christian Medical Society, which is oriented toward evangelism. The International Order of St. Luke the Physician and the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International also count many physicians among their members.

A ``whole new area of cooperation between Spirit-filled doctors and Christians: congregations, fellowships, prayer-groups, is rapidly developing,'' writes British physician Rex Gardner in ``Healing Miracles.'' ``At last we are beginning to see something of true holistic medicine: body, mind, and spirit all being renewed by God the Holy Spirit.''

Reflecting the growing symbiosis of medicine and religion is the establishment of the Park Ridge Center, an institute for the study of ``health, faith, and ethics.'' Headed by Lutheran clergyman Martin Marty, the center seeks to stimulate inquiry by religionists, scientists, and ethicists into these increasingly related domains.

``In our culture, people are wanting both more scientific medicine and are hungry and searching for other dimensions of healing,'' says James P. Wind, editor of the center's journal Second Opinion. ``Our center is trying to explore the whole range of relationships.''

THE growing cooperation between religion and medicine is also evident in countless programs like the Holistic Health Centers established in church buildings by Granger E. Westberg; the National Capital Presbytery Health Ministries, a Presbyterian Church-based activity that involves collaboration with medical professionals as well as social workers and educators; and St. Luke's Health Ministries in Baltimore, which operates a health center in a Lutheran church that combines medical and spiritual healing.

Modern medical research is spurring the collaboration. Many hospitals and research laboratories, such as the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, are conducting experiments on the effect of depression, anxiety, fear, resentment, and other negative states, as well as of such positive conditions as joy and humor, on the body's ability to resist or recover from disease. Relaxation, mental imaging, and meditation are among the techniques being tested in clinics to change physical conditions.

In a new and burgeoning field called psychoimmunology, psychologists, immunologists, neuroscientists, and microbiologists are probing the connection between the brain and the specialized blood cells that make up the immune system. They are finding that the mind does influence the immune system.

Today, says Dr. DenBesten, medicine is beginning to accept and affirm the interdependence of what is classically referred to as mind and body, or body and soul. Thus, the scholar notes, while medicine has discovered that the body secretes endorphins, chemicals that help control the ability to withstand pain, changing a person's emotions and mental state can increase secretion of the endorphins.

``So the divorce between psychiatry and medicine, between the emotional/psychological and the somatic, is disappearing very rapidly,'' DenBesten says. ``Medical science is confirming what a Christian should have known all along.''

The impact of such researches can be seen in the current outpouring of books, periodicals, and articles on the subject of mind/body/health and the public's growing preoccupation with health care and physical and mental fitness. A Washington Post health section in August carried the cover headline ``Good Humor, Good Medicine.'' The journal American Health focused its July issue on ``Mind Force.''

``There is hardly a patient who does not believe that the mind has an effect on the body,'' writes Eric J. Cassell, a clinical professor of public health at Cornell University Medical College. ``Large numbers believe that most illnesses are brought on by inner conflicts of which the patient is unaware. Many physicians, at least for themselves and their families, act as though they hold the same ideas.''

IN light of new findings, some observers are beginning to reassess the contribution of medicine to health in general. Robert Ornstein and David Sobel, co-authors of ``The Healing Brain,'' say that most discoveries throughout medical history cannot be explained by the usual canons of medicine.

``It was not, in most cases, the specific medical remedy that usually cured the patient,'' state the neuroscientists in a Washington Post article adapted from their book. ``It was the belief in the remedy and in the healer (or in something else) that seems to have mobilized powerful innate self-healing mechanisms within the brain. In fact, the long history of medical treatment is, for the overwhelming part, a history of how strong belief heals.''

Much of the medical establish- ment, however, is proceeding full speed ahead, as if healing is entirely a mechanical process, with little if any relation to a patient's belief or thought. Medical technology has grown more and more sophisticated, now offering multiple organ transplants, in vitro fertilization, artificial knee and finger joints, surgery conducted with lasers, etc.

Exploration into future technologies is extensive. Gene therapy - the replacing or altering of abnormal genes - is expected by some to be tomorrow's penicillin. Body engineering has thus become a powerful industry and the focus of considerable medical publicity.

Deeply committed to a mechanistic view of the body and healing, the medical community at large has reacted harshly to ongoing mind/body research. In June 1985 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center which seemed to disprove a link between the mind and the immune system. The study found that life style, social background, and personality had nothing to do with whether cancer patients improved or died.

Marcia Angell, deputy editor of the magazine, wrote an accompanying editorial stating: ``Our belief in disease as a direct reflection of mental state is largely folklore. Furthermore, the corollary view of sickness and death as a personal failure is a particularly unfortunate form of blaming the victim.''

The study and the editorial unleashed a storm of angry comment and opposition. The American Psychological Association adopted a resolution calling it ``inaccurate and unfortunate.'' Dozens of cancer patients and their doctors wrote the journal protesting its conclusions. A British medical journal, The Lancet, published a review of studies linking psychological factors and diseases.

The Institute for the Advancement of Health, meanwhile, in cooperation with a Harvard Medical School researcher, published ``Mind and Immunity,'' a bibliography of 1,400 scientific reports on the topic.

``I've been astonished by the debate,'' Dr. Angell responded to all the furor. ``It's as though I had attacked motherhood and happiness. People seem to want to believe that how we think matters for our health - that we have the power to control things that are powerful and frightening. But it's like doing a rain dance.''

While the debate goes on, some physicians continue to act on their conviction concerning the relation of emotions and diverse ills, from the common cold to heart disease. Among the most prominent is Bernie S. Siegel, a Jewish surgeon and teacher at Yale Medical School. Ten years ago, Dr. Siegel founded a support network for what he calls Exceptional Cancer Patients, i.e., those who actively combat their malady.

Although he does not explicitly use religion as a part of therapy, Siegel stresses the importance of self-worth and of getting rid of stress and conflicts in one's life in order to recover health. He cites many cases of healing when patients altered their attitudes.

``I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system,'' he writes in his popular book ``Love, Medicine and Miracles.'' ``If I told patients to raise their blood levels of immune globulins or killer T cells, no one would know how. But if I can teach them to love themselves and others fully, the same changes happen automatically. The truth is: love heals.''

MANY nurses, for their part, are practicing a system called ``therapeutic touch,'' developed by nursing researcher Dolores Krieger at New York University and taught to thousands of health-care professionals. Believing that an exchange of energy enables the patient to accelerate his own healing, the nurse places her hands a few inches from a patient's body and moves them from head to toe, focusing on areas that ``feel'' imbalanced.

The nurse also seeks to maintain a sense of relaxation and human warmth toward the patient. Such therapy is reported to reduce the anxiety of patients before surgery, for instance.

These and other developments have profound implications for the whole field of Christian healing. The agreement between religionists and doctors about the mind/body relationship has in fact provided a basis for the two to work together, primarily on the medical community's terms.

Many clergy have come to believe that psychological help as well as religious faith can reinforce medical treatment. A great deal of ``Christian healing,'' therefore, resembles holistic medicine, which employs a whole array of therapies as it focuses on the ``whole'' or ``integrated'' person rather than solely on the diseased body in isolation from the patient's mental or spiritual state.

Although the interface between religion and medicine is rapidly expanding, there are occasional signs of ultimate incompatibility. Some aspects of Christian healing - even as popularly practiced - run contrary to medical theory. For instance, it is often argued in medical quarters that God may work through natural laws and the biophysical process, but not through miraculous intervention.

In their pamphlet ``Healing: What Does God Promise?'' Paul Brand, a retired professor of surgery at Louisiana State University Medical School, and Philip Yancey, editor at large of Christianity Today, question so-called faith healings, i.e., God's intervention in the physical realm in some supernatural way. ``What most people think of when you say the word `divine healing' - a supernatural intervention that reverses natural laws governing our bodies - is extremely rare.''

BUT, say the authors, God works primarily through faculties of the mind to ``summon up new resources of healing in a person's body.'' They cite the use of distracting noises and sensations to control pain, the placebo effect, biofeedback, and hypnosis as potent techniques in medicine. ``The mind is a powerful force, and God can use it for his good purposes,'' they write.

Mr. Yancey and Mr. Brand say that maintaining the love, patience, and other qualities of the Spirit cited in the New Testament have a strong effect on healing the body. The Spirit, they say, ``uses the natural milieu - the mind, nerves, and hormonal systems that control all cells - to accomplish his work. The channels of the mind open up wonderful opportunities for Christians, for we can indeed assist the healing process in each other.''

While medicine has long dominated the field of health care, it has also opened the door to doubts and questions. Doctors themselves are beginning to challenge the shortcomings of some of their methods and even the imposition of sophisticated medical practices on patients who do not want them. Many physicians criticize the overuse of hospitals, surgery, and laboratory tests.

A few sociologists researching the field of Christian healing and health care are coming to the conclusion that the medical fraternity can no longer ignore the many healings taking place in religious settings.

``The medical establishment must come to grips with the voluminous claims of those who have experienced spiritual healing and testify that it works,'' says Anson Shupe, chairman of the anthropology and sociology department of Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. ``Simplistic mob psychology explanations about mass delusion will not do. For an unknown but seemingly significant proportion of the population, the medical profession's hard-won credibility has been called into question. The medical model has more limitations than its promoters wish to admit....''

Occasionally, an individual in the field of Christian healing will suggest that spiritual healing requires relying more on God as the healing power, and moving away from medical assistance.

``Christian healing is determinately different from medical practice, different not in degree but in kind,'' writes Michael Drury in her book ``Every Whit Whole: the adventure of spiritual healing.'' ``Therapeutics searches for a cause and removes it; metaphysics seeks to gain a fresh view which in turn alters the appearance....''

Ms. Drury, an author with a deep interest in healing through prayer, says she does not suggest that a person forsake medical treatment. But, she adds, ``I am bound to say that full-scale spiritual healing would lead that way.''

WHILE most clergy in the healing movement would not accept such a conclusion, a few are raising questions about the impact of medical diagnoses. The Rev. John Wimber, author of ``Power Healing,'' fully supports medical treatment and urges people for whom he prays to seek medical aid. But he also observes that physicians often discourage healing by telling patients they will not improve or by forecasting the odds for their recovery.

``So well-intended words from doctors may create formidable obstacles to healing,'' Pastor Wimber writes. ``In many instances the Holy Spirit heals the physical damage only after the power of the doctor's words is broken.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.