A Theologian Looks at Healing And Its Effects on Religion


By Tom Harpur

McClelland & Stewart/

St. Martin's Press

275 pp., $24.95

THERE is irony in the fact that as Congress debates the intricacies of the United States health-care system, increasing numbers of Americans are making use of alternative methods of healing.

As Tom Harpur notes at the start of his book, ``The Uncommon Touch: An Investigation of Spiritual Healing,'' some 61 million people in the US ``used one or more unconventional therapies or forms of non-medical healing in 1990.''

Many of these people combined a nonmedical approach with the use of modern medicine. What is significant about the number, though, is the evident dissatisfaction many feel with the mechanistic view of man taken by modern medicine, as well as the increasingly impersonal relationship of doctor and patient in all too many situations. Moreover, the higher the educational level of the population, the greater was the percentage of those trying alternative means of healing.

Harpur writes from a rich background as an Anglican priest, professor, and journalist. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he was also a Rhodes scholar. After serving as a priest in a parish near Toronto for seven years, he taught the New Testament at the University of Toronto.

He moved to the Toronto Star in 1971, where he was that newspaper's religion editor for the next 12 years. The author of several other books on religion, including ``Life After Death'' (1991), he continues to write a newspaper column as well.

Harpur's own interest in spiritual healing was aroused when he was serving as an Anglican priest. ``[N]o greater therapy exists in all the world than the consciousness of life - however hard, however complex, however filled with inexplicable events and pain -

as something ultimately in the control of an infinitely loving mind and presence.''

One of the book's chapters deals with the healing work of Godfrey Mowatt in Britain. Mowatt, who was blinded in his youth, developed a capacity to heal others, and, at the age of 68, was ordained (in 1943) to the ministry of healing by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Harpur remarks parenthetically that many healers seem to have been prepared for their life work by ``the shadow of illness or accident,'' noting that this was also the experience of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

Harpur finds a greater flexibility in Britain, on the part of both the medical profession and the Christian church, to be open to experiment. This attitude stems in part from the pioneer work of Mowatt.

Since the mid-1970s, he says, some 1,500 healers have had access to British hospitals. Today there are 16 different ``spiritual healing associations'' in Britain with a total membership of about 8,000 healers.

While the ``uncommon touch,'' from which the book's title comes, involves the early Christian practice of the laying on of hands, Harpur uses it as a metaphor for a myriad of nonmedical approaches, not all of them religious in nature, or even consistent with each other. Their inclusion is indicative of the wide range of interest today - they include bioenergetic healing, prayer, nonreligious meditation, and the Chinese practices of acupuncture and Qigong (``acupuncture without needles,'' Harpur writes).

But it is Harpur's own commitment to Christianity that evokes the book's strongest writing. Addressing the healing in the early Christian church and the entire Biblical tradition of healing, or wholeness, he sees an emphasis on healing as a way to the renewal of religion.

``[I]t has become increasingly evident to me,'' Harpur writes, ``that healing, both as a metaphor and as a reality, might well hold the key to the renewal of religion, and, more importantly, of spirituality, in the post-Christian world of the future.''

But he does not view healing in isolation from the ethical bent of one's life. ``The ultimate test of whether spiritual healing has occurred, I believe, is whether the person who receives it in turn becomes a healing presence, first with those nearest at hand and then with the wider community. Healing that stops with the individual seems eventually to sour or to weaken and falter. That's why I believe for each of us the final challenge in this investigation is to discover our own potential for healing others.''

He notes the accumulating evidence (from a variety of nonmedical approaches) to indicate that prayer actually puts one in touch with a higher, or larger, reality - that, in effect, prayer can be considered scientific. Therefore it is not necessary for one being prayed for to have faith in the spiritual healer, Harpur says (although active opposition to the healer can block a healing). ``[B]ecause something objective is going on, something that follows specific laws, the healing is not conditional on the strength of that belief.''

Harpur quotes Candace Pert at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience of Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.: ``As a scientist, I believe we're going to understand everything one day, but this understanding will require bringing in a realm we don't understand at all yet. We're going to have to bring in that extra-energy realm, the realm of spirit and soul that Descartes kicked out of Western scientific thought.''

``The Uncommon Touch'' constitutes one more pressure point on the medical profession to open its eyes to a dimension of life that is tangible, even if not measurable by its own present yardsticks. It also calls on Christians and their churches to live more fully the good news of the Christian Gospel. ``[T]ruly hearing the Gospel,'' writes Harpur, ``means being able to commit oneself to life as the eagle commits itself to the wind.''

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