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How can faith make whole?

by
11 October 2011

Maria Schleger looks at questions about spiritual healing

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Spiritual Healing: Scientific and religious perspectives
Fraser Watts, editor
Cambridge University Press £55
(978-0-521-19793-9)
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

The Church’s Healing Ministry: Practical and pastoral reflections
David Atkinson

Canterbury Press £14.99
(978-1-84825-077-2)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

The Church’s Healing Ministry: Practical and pastoral reflections
David Atkinson

Canterbury Press £14.99
(978-1-84825-077-2)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

STUCK in a long Proms queue one sunny evening, we began to discuss exorcism. A psychotherapist had been interviewed on the radio. In an attempt to rid herself of the perse­cut­ory voices that had long tor­mented her, she had turned finally to an exorcist.

My companion, a liberal Chris­tian, was worried. “Surely, that kind of belief is dangerous and will pre­vent her getting the psychiatric help she really needs?” With Fraser Watts’s book of essays fresh in my mind, I disagreed.

Largely written from a Christian perspective by a number of aca­demics and specialists in the fields of anthropology and history, as well as theology, psychology, and medicine, Watts’s book sets out to challenge our common cultural assumption that any kind of healing not based on the Western medical model is perilous nonsense.

To do this, it has first to tackle the dualist notion that underpins that model: mind and body seen as distinct entities operating indepen­dently of one another. Instead, Watts posits “an emergentist view of mind, in which mental powers are seen as emerging from the physical body”. Spirit then emerges from both mind and body. He tells us of Coleridge’s maxim that distinctions do not imply divisions. So healing is necessarily holistic, involving the whole person, in both our physical and our psycho-social dimensions.

The authors of this volume do not always agree. This makes for interesting reading. David Leech takes issue with the whole idea (espoused by Justin Meggitt and Watts) that scientific inquiry has much to contribute to the pheno­menon of spiritual healing. “I want both to admit the reality and power of spiritual healing, but also to as­sert that science is potentially capa­ble of taking steps towards under­standing it,” Watts writes.

Current scientific knowledge is not definitive: it is subject to para­digmatic shifts; in the future we will know. The problem with this, ac­cording to Leech, is that it does little more than establish that spiritual healing is not merely “fraud or malobservation”. Only a “superna­tur­alist” explanation can lay claim to the origin of healing in God’s action; for belief rests inevitably on “extrascientific assumptions”.

In another well-argued essay, Meggitt examines head-on how we can believe that the healing miracles of Jesus were actual physical cures. He takes issue with the current explanation that they might be understood as conversion disorders, when the mind converts an insol­uble psychic conflict into a somatic symptom, as for instance many soldiers did in the First World War. He opts instead for the placebo effect, a much richer concept than is usually realised. Other essays ex­amine research into the effectiveness of prayer, the place of illness in healing, and secular insights into spiritual healing.

This is a stimulating book with clear pastoral and practical impli­cations for prayer and work with the sick.

David Atkinson’s short book, on the other hand, lacks focus. It at­tempts in an exhortatory style to cover a vast amount of ground, and succeeds in saying very little that has not been said before about the theo­logical and practical implications of the healing ministry. In a section on intercessory prayer, we are reminded that “it is, of course, always import­ant to make time to wait for God and listen to him, especially in the rush and exhaustion of contempor­ary life.”

Atkinson devotes little more than a page and a half to the question of miracles, which he oddly refers to as “clever events”. The best chapters are the ones about the Church’s rela­tion­ship to counselling and sexual abuse, two issues that he has written about at greater length elsewhere.

The Revd Maria Schleger is a psychotherapist and Anglican priest.

NEARLY six per cent of the UK population suffer from dependence on alcohol. John McMahon and Lou Lewis write from experience in Bottled Up for families affected by a person’s drinking (Lion, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-7459-5515-5).

NEARLY six per cent of the UK population suffer from dependence on alcohol. John McMahon and Lou Lewis write from experience in Bottled Up for families affected by a person’s drinking (Lion, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-7459-5515-5).

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