The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...
Donal P. O'Mathuna, Ph.D.
Almost every week some national TV news program features alternative medicine. It has recently hit the cover of Time, Newsweek and Life. This media coverage reflects a growing interest among Americans in these therapies. In response, many medical schools and nursing colleges now teach courses in alternative medicine. Some hospitals offer alternative therapies, and insurance companies are considering covering some of them.
What are Christians to think of this cultural trend? Should it be rejected as yet another fad grasped by society as it seeks to answer life's deeper questions apart from Jesus Christ? Should it be embraced as more compatible with the biblical perspective that humans are more than the physical machines much of modern, scientific medicine seems to assume? Christians should at least seek to understand why people are more interested in these therapies. Only then can they bring the power of Christ to bear on the underlying needs contributing to this changed perspective on health and healing.
Discussions about alternative medicine are plagued by unclear definitions of terms. These therapies are called by various names, such as complementary, unconventional, holistic, fringe, or New Age medicine. Each term carries different connotations, and means something different to everyone involved. Complicating matters further, specific therapies may be viewed as alternative by some, but not by others. For example, a frequently cited study found that 34% of Americans used at least one unconventional therapy during 1990, spending $13.7 billion in the process (David M. Eisenberg, et al, "Unconventional Medicine in the United States," New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 328, 1993, pp. 246-52). Therapies used included practices not usually found in modern Western medicine, like Chinese herbal medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy and energy healing. However, also included as "unconventional" were therapies which many would not classify as alternatives: self-help groups, weight-loss programs and relaxation techniques!
Broad definitions give the impression that alternative medicine is more popular than may be the case. At the same time, modern medicine often neglects the importance of lifestyle, relationships, stress, and spirituality. Concern with these can be seen as an 'alternative' to a purely physical approach to health and healing. The difficulty in defining this term should be a caution against quickly endorsing or rejecting alternative medicine en masse. Rather, one must examine smaller groups of therapies, and the general ideas and beliefs underlying them. Christians can welcome and affirm certain aspects of alternative medicine, but other aspects demand caution, and still others must be completely rejected.
Modern medicine itself has contributed to the increased interest in alternative medicine (see my "Postmodern Impact: Health Care," in The Death of Truth, Bethany House, 1996). Modern, scientific medicine can literally work wonders with bacterial infections, broken bones or severe injuries from car wrecks. However, medical solutions for cancer, AIDS and chronic illnesses have not been so dramatic. Patients become angry or disillusioned when modern medicine does not produce rapid, complete recoveries. Some get frustrated with the emphasis on technology, drugs and surgery to treat only the physical symptoms of illness. Ethical quandaries over the use of technology, especially at the end of life, make others question physicians' motivations. Many could accept these difficult situations, but the impersonal treatment and financial pressures of hi-tech medicine cause them to turn elsewhere.
Christians can empathize with these concerns. These are very distressing circumstances. Certainly, humans are not just bags of chemicals, but are embodied spiritual, emotional, and relational beings (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12). Any form of medicine which neglects patients' feelings, family dynamics, or lifestyle issues (such as diet, exercise, and stress) fails to care for the whole person. The Bible affirms the importance of these factors for healthy living (Proverbs 17:22; 2 Samuel 13:2). But Scripture, unlike either modern or alternative medicine, also indicates that complete health depends upon a moral life, and resolving one's moral guilt (Proverbs 3:8; Psalms 32:3-4; 1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Since forgiveness is only available through Jesus Christ, He is the only true source of ultimate healing (John 6:35-40).
Some of the reasons people seek alternative, unconventional treatments are similar to those leading others to seek the latest scientific, technological advance. Many cannot accept that there is no cure out there, somewhere, for them. So, they search for anything ever reputed to have cured their illness. Testimonies take on great importance. But the search itself can become a way to avoid dealing with the inevitable. Death may be imminent, or activities may be restricted for the rest of one's life. These are extremely difficult times for all involved, and call for great sensitivity. However, coming to terms with the reality of one's situation is important.
No generation is more interested in staying healthy than the Baby Boomers. Yet their bodies are now showing wear and tear. The ideas of "perfect health" and "ageless bodies" promoted by one of alternative medicine's main gurus, Deepak Chopra, resonate well with those who have worshipped personal health and fitness. Christians must recognize even they can get too caught up in the search for personal health and comfort. Certainly they should care for their bodies and pursue appropriate treatments, especially since they are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Yet they must not worship their bodies or expect to be free of all suffering. Job was a righteous man (Job 1:1) but God allowed him to suffer excruciating physical illness (Job 1:7-8). The woman Dorcas was a disciple "full of good works," but she got sick and died (Acts 9:36-37). Timothy appears to have been sickly (1 Timothy 5:23). Epaphroditus was even made sick by his work in the ministry (Philippians 2: 25-30). James anticipates illness among the believers (James 5:14ff). Obviously, the idea that true Christians will never experience real physical illness is not biblical.
God has given Christians the resources to endure pain and suffering. Paul prayed that the thorn in his flesh (thought by many to have been some illness; cf Galatians 4:13-15) would be removed, yet it was not (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Still, he found strength in the knowledge that his weakness strengthened the power of Christ in his life. He learned, and calls all Christians to learn, to be content in the midst of any circumstance (Philippians 4:11-13). Christians can also be comforted knowing that sickness, pain and death one day will be eradicated (1 Corinthians 15:26; Philippians 3:21; Revelation 21:4). They must base their hope on these promises, not the uncertainties of either modern or alternative medicine.
When choosing which treatment to pursue, two biblical principles should guide Chritians to limit what they expend on themselves: a) stewardship, and b) avoiding evil practices.
Stewardship of resources should lead Christians to take steps to maintain their health through proper diet, exercise, relaxation, ministry, and spiritual nourishment. Prayer and good counsel are needed for balancing these elements. Just as they consider how much to spend on food and homes, Christians must question whether the money spent on health, be it modern or alternative, represents good stewardship of their own, and society's, resources.
Stewardship crosses all boundaries. Whether the therapy requires surgery, a hi-tech instrument, an herb, or some energy field manipulation, is not the issue. Stewardship asks whether therapies actually work or not. Controlled studies give the best means of determining the effectiveness of any therapy. If studies show that a therapy is ineffective, or no better than a placebo, Christians should consider it a waste of the resources which God expects them to manage wisely and effectively. The limited nature of today's health care resources, and the need to reduce waste, makes this an especially important issue.
While some alternative medicines have not been researched, others have. Those found to have positive effects are gaining in credibility among health care professionals, e.g. chiropractic for lower back problems, acupuncture for some pain. Lifestyle issues, and the importance of caring for patients as people, not just bodies, have been shown to be important. For example, stress reduction may bring great relief and comfort, even of physical symptoms. However, many alternative therapies have also failed to demonstrate significant benefits in controlled trials, e.g. iridology, homeopathy, and aura healing. News media reports often fail to mention this, leaving the impression that none of the alternative therapies have been shown to be ineffective, and that criticisms are based only on biases.
The lack of consensus on a definition of alternative medicine causes problems here also. Evidence to support or refute one therapy is often used to make sweeping claims about alternative medicine in general. For example, when a critic stated that little scientific evidence backed up alternative medicine's claims, a journalist responded that, "This is not entirely true" (George Colt, "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me," Life, September 1996, pp. 34-50). The journalist then listed studies concerning massage, support groups, exercise, diet and meditation. However, his article had been describing practices such as craniosacral therapy, cupping, homeopathy and pulse diagnosis. Clearly, this is comparing apples with oranges! Yet these rhetorical tactics are commonplace with proponents of alternative medicine, and are not limited to the popular media.
Therapeutic touch (TT) (see Profile, this issue) has been researched for over 20 years. One nursing article claimed that several studies show that TT effectively reduces pain (Rochelle Mackey, "Discover the Healing Power of Therapeutic Touch," American Journal of Nursing, April 1995, pp. 27-32). Yet the only study described (without citation) actually concluded "that TT does not significantly decrease postoperative pain during the first hour following intervention" (Thérèse C. Meehan, "Therapeutic Touch and Postoperative Pain: A Rogerian Research Study," Nursing Science Quarterly, Vol. 6, 1993, pp. 69-78). Meehan herself responded to Mackey's article, noting "that the effects of TT on pain are unclear and replication studies are needed before any conclusions can be drawn. There is no convincing evidence that TT promotes relaxation and decreases anxiety beyond a placebo effect, Other claims about outcomes are, in fact, speculation" (Letters, American Journal of Nursing, July 1995, p. 17). Yet the promoters of TT received an unprecedented number of inquiries following publication of Mackey's article, continuing the illusion that TT is a research-based practice, while reviews of the research show this is clearly not the case. The public is further duped into believing this since TT is frequently included in news reports as a credible alternative therapy.
Waste of limited resources must concern Christians, but so should the spiritual aspects of some alternative medicines. The turn to alternative medicine is as much a rejection of modern Christendom as it is of modern medicine (Robert C. Fuller, "The Turn to Alternative Medicine," Second Opinion, Vol. 18, 1992, pp. 11-31). Excessive rationalism and materialism led not only to an over-emphasis on the physical aspects of health and illness in modern medicine, but also to a rejection of spirituality and the supernatural in the modern church. People presented with dead orthodoxy, or demythologized liberalism, left the church feeling God had no place in their lives. But people's spiritual needs remain. They want to sense the reality of God in their lives. They seek answers to questions like "Why do I suffer?" or "Is there an after-life?" Many such seekers may feel that alternative medicine provides answers to these spiritual questions.
People are told how to tap into a universal energy field which will relieve the woes in their lives. Unlike God, however, this energy field makes no moral claims on the person. It is supposedly accessible in a tangible way at any time, once some techniques are learned. In effect, it offers control over divine power without having to repent. What is promoted as alternative medicine is actually alternative religion. As one practitioner put it, "I got more from mind-body medicine than I bargained for: I got religion" (Marty Kaplan, "Ambushed by Spirituality," Time, June 24, 1996, p. 62).
Many forms of alternative medicine claim to be based on the manipulation of a non-physical human energy field, one that cannot be detected by physical instruments. This energy goes by various names like life energy, chi, or prana, and underlies TT, reflexology, homeopathy, pulse diagnosis, etc. Belief in its existence is deeply rooted in Eastern mystical religions and Western occult traditions. It is no wonder increased acceptance of holistic healing is the cultural trend most admired by New Age Journal!
Sadly, some Christians view this "life energy" as the power of God, and dive headlong into these practices. People want to believe they can create their own realities, but just calling something "God's power" does not justify the assumption that it is actually from God. This alleged energy and the claims made for and about it must be examined in the light of God's Word to see if it could be from God (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1-3). Christians should not buy into the culture's belief that if it's "God" for one, and "Buddha" for another, and "life energy" for yet another, still, all can be happy and accept one another's 'truths.' There really are irreconcilable differences.
Many alternative therapies openly admit that knowledge of "life energy," and how to manipulate it for healing, originates in occult practices. One of TT's founders encourages use of divination (Dolores Krieger, The Therapeutic Touch: How to Use Your Hands to Help or Heal). Healing Touch recommends the use of spirit guides (Barbara Brennan, Hands of Light: A Guide to Healing Through the Human Energy Field). Information about Reiki, an ancient Japanese therapy, is available through channeling (Diane Stein, Essential Reiki: A Complete Guide to an Ancient Healing Art). The Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine and Self-Help notes that life force or prana "can be harnessed by the individual who sensitizes himself by certain occult practices." These include meditation, deep breathing, chanting mantras, advanced visualization and "secret rituals which have been closely guarded secrets of the highest mystery schools on earth. . .and beyond" (Malcolm Hulke, ed., "Spiritual Healing," p. 178).
Some alternative therapies are thinly disguised versions of occult healing rituals. For example, almost every facet of TT, and its underlying beliefs, are described in occult literature. Recent interest among nurses in TT was started by Dolores Krieger, RN, Ph.D. and Dora Kunz. Kunz was then president of the Theosophical Society in America, an organization which promotes occult and mystical beliefs. Another past president of this society claims that an occultist heals by "the successful conveying of prana or vitality from his own healthy body to the diseased body or diseased organ or part" (G. de Purucker, Studies in Occult Philosophy, p. 623). A prominent witch describes "Pranic Healing" as a way of "sending Prana (the 'vital force') from your body to the diseased or affected parts,. . .It involves the use of passes and the laying-on of hands" (Raymond Buckland, Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, p. 194). Even his diagrams show it to be the same as TT.
The hands are powerful symbols in occult healing. "It is an occult fact that the hands of a disciple become transmitters of spiritual energy" (Alice A. Bailey, A Treatise On White Magic, 6th ed., p. 576). The lack of physical contact has long been part of auric healing. "Most experienced auric healers will not normally touch the patient's body during the 'laying on of hands': they will hold them an inch or two away, in contact with the inner aura" (Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar, A Witches Bible Compleat: Volume 2: The Rituals, p. 229). After passing their hands over patients, TT practitioners often flick their wrists to remove "negative energy," just as in occult practices: "When the pass is completed, swing the fingers sideways, as if you were throwing water from them" (Yogi Ramacharaka, The Science of Psychic Healing, p. 53).
As noted earlier, the effectiveness of such practices is disputed, with no documented scientific evidence to conclusively prove their benefit. However, even if therapies based on occultic life energies do heal, Christians must be willing to forego them. There are fates worse than illness and deformity in this life, or even death (Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:4, 5). Christians are to completely avoid the occult realm (Deuteronomy 18:9-14; Isaiah 8:19; Acts 19:18-19; 1 Corinthians 10:19-22).
Furthermore, the intuitions obtained in meditative trances are frequently unreliable. The false prophets of the Old Testament preached from divination and visions, but only revealed the futility and deception of their own minds (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:16-17; Ezekiel 13:6-8). Sorcery, spells and astrology are useless in our hour of need (Isaiah 47:9-13). The false prophets, diviners, dreamers, soothsayers and sorcerers declared lies because they contradicted God (Jeremiah 27:9-10). God is so different from this impersonal life energy. He is a personal Being to whom one can (and should) pray for healing (James 5:14- 16). But one cannot expect to control God's power (Luke 4:22-27; Acts 8:18- 23). Rather, Christians should submit to His will for their lives (James 4:15).
Because God is personal, the lives of Christians should portray His personal attributes. When Christians are seen loving others as God loves them, others will be drawn to His love (John 13:35). They will experience the true healing which comes from a personal relationship with Jesus. Christian health care workers can change the image of modern medicine by calling for, and modeling, more Christ-like treatment of all people. As this occurs, the current system can change without being rejected, and alternatives based on other religions will be less attractive.
Christians must also all learn to face illness and death with the hope and contentment of Paul (Philippians 1:21-24). They should pursue health care as good stewards of both their lives and the gifts they have been given (1 Corinthians 12:7). But their purpose on earth is not just to live longer, but to serve others and glorify God (Romans 14:7-9; 2 Corinthians 5:15). With these perspectives Christians can avoid frantic scrambling after the latest treatment, whether modern or alternative. They can more calmly evaluate what works and what does not work. Christians can accept certain insights from alternative medicine, but they must also reject any therapies based on beliefs and principles clearly opposed to the will of God.