Process Theology and Multifactorial Healing
In responding to John Cobb’s insightful discussion of miracles and the impact of emotions and attitudes in issues of health and illness, Teri Wooten Daily, an Episcopalian priest from Russellville, Arkansas, raises important questions that must addressed by any theology, philosophy, or spiritual practice that affirms the intricate interdependence of mind, body, spirit, and emotions, and the positive or negative role of these factors on issues of health and wellness.
Rev. Wooten Daily confesses: “I don’t feel completely comfortable with the direction it can lead. I still remember being in my 20s and sitting with a med school classmate who was dying of cancer. She said that if she could only get her spiritual and mental self in the right order, then she would be cured. The implication was that it was basically her failure, not the metastatic osteosarcoma spreading through her body, that was causing her approaching death. How can we accept what God says without it leading to self-blame when ‘miracles’ don’t happen?”
I believe that both theology, like medicine, is admonished in the words of the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” In my forty years serving as a congregational pastor, university chaplain, and seminary and university professor, and for several years a clinical and academic faculty member at a major medical school, I have witnessed a good deal of harmful theology related to issues of health and illness, perpetuated by misunderstandings of the power of the mind and faith to create our own realities and health conditions. When we are confronted with our mortality, especially when this involves young and middle age adults and children, we hope for a miracle, a quantum leap of energy, to restore us to health and ensure our survival. I know this personally, as the parent, of a cancer survivor. We want to believe that if we align ourselves with divine order, all will be well for us and those whom we love.
I recall a woman confronting me at a reception following a wedding I had just performed. She shared a story of theological and spiritual malpractice, perpetrated by two spiritual leaders. A member of a conservative Christian church, when she came to her pastor asking for guidance in responding to her pre-school daughter’s health condition, the pastor challenged her, “If you only have more faith, your daughter will get well. Just a mustard seed’s amount of faith can give you a miracle.” When her daughter’s condition deteriorated, he chided her again, “Your daughter’s sick because of your doubts. All things are possible to those who believe. Is your faith that weak?”
Feeling like a failure and guilty for her lack of faith, although she prayed for her daughter and took her to the congregation’s healing services, my conversation partner wisely left the scene of this theological abuse. In search of a cure, she then sought the counsel of a well-known “new age” healer, who assured her that “We all create our own realities and bring health and illness into our lives and our children’s lives by the quality of our thoughts. If you heal your thoughts, your daughter will get well.” When her daughter’s condition showed no improvement, the new age healer berated her, “You’re still stuck in scarcity thinking and don’t trust the universe. Your negativity bringing this on your daughter.” She dropped this “healer” as well and was on the verge of abandoning spirituality altogether.
I believe theology can hurt and heal and cure and kill. Theology can create in-group of elites who believer their faith and positive thinking is responsible for their health and prosperity. It can also produce an out-group of failures, who believe, or are told by the healthy and faithful elites, that their spiritual ineptitude has led to illness and poverty. Sadly, this anxious mother was damaged by simplistic theologies, both Christian and new age, that end up blaming the victim for their diseases of body, mind, or spirit, creating a double portion of guilt and judgment for persons when compassion is what they most need.
I believe that process theology provides a positive vision of the power of the mind and emotions, and our spiritual practices, to shape our health condition, avoiding the pitfalls of impotence and omnipotence in terms of our ability to effect changes in our physical well-being. Process theology affirms that our attitudes are factors in health and illness. In the intricate interdependence of mind, body, and spirit, our emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical conditions shape one another.
On the one hand, physical issues can lead to feelings of depression and powerlessness. Further, emotional and mental states, for example stress, anxiety, grief, or negativity, have been associated with suppressing immune system functioning and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, creative visualization, attitudinal healing, positive thinking, liturgical healing prayer, and energetic healing touch techniques have been found, both scientifically and anecdotally, to contribute to overall well-being, pain relief, stress reduction, and greater energy.
Our spirituality, positive thinking, affirmations, and emotional well-being shape our overall health, and can be both preventative and curative. But the mind is not omnipotent. The impact of our attitudes is relational and not coercive, ambient and not linear. Many persons today, especially in the new age and prosperity gospel and “name it and claim it” Pentecostal movements, have replaced the omnipotent God with the omnipotent mind or omnipotent faith, both of which come short – and are often harmful – in an intricately interdependent world. Indeed, omnipotence, whether divine or human, as a coercive, unilateral, and all-determining power is a metaphysical impossibility in in an interdependent realm of multiple actors or influences.
As a daily practitioner of contemplative prayer, spiritual affirmations, intercessory and petitionary prayer, and reiki healing touch, I witness the positive benefits of these practices for myself and others on a regular basis. I regularly observe these practices contributing in local and non-local ways to better physical health outcomes for myself and for those for whom I pray or share distant, or non-local, reiki. I also recognize that these practices are but one part of a profoundly multifactorial process that shapes my overall well-being. These many other factors include, but are not restricted to, environment, social context, economic situation and healthcare accessibility, family of origin, DNA, as well as prayer, meditation, positive thinking, and prayers and positive beliefs of others. Spiritual practices make a difference in well-being and recovery from illness, but the exact nature of this difference cannot be quantified and occurs within the dynamic matrix of numerous other causal factors.
I know of many cases in which attitude has been a tipping point toward both healing and curing. I also know of many cases in which deeply spiritual persons have succumbed to physically incurable illnesses or lived with decades long chronic illness. These persons sought a cure for their physical ailments and utilized all the medical and spiritual resources at their disposal. Yet, no such cure occurred. I have known other persons, with similar ailments, who scorned spirituality, focusing solely on medical treatment, and survived! In a world in which our lives – from the cellular to the spiritual - are shaped by a multitude of factors and influences, certain medical outcomes will always remain a mystery. Dramatic cures occur but the exact mechanisms cannot be fully calculated. This mystery inspires humility and forbids us to seek easy answers that ultimately promote guilt, passivity, or elitism.
Still, I believe that when there isn’t a cure, there can be a healing: faith, attitudes, and prayers pave the way to emotional and spiritual wholeness even when a cure was not possible. Within the multi-factorial nature of life, influencing health and illness, no one factor is fully determinative. Still, I believe that one other factor is at work – the Fellow Sufferer Who Understands and the Loving Companion Who Rejoices, working relationally within the intricacies of causal relationships and mind-body-spirit connections to bring forth experiences of beauty and healing, and cures, if possible, as well as the tragic beauty of healing as we face our inevitable mortality.
- God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness and the Healing Miracles of Jesus” (Westminster/John Knox, 2001)
- “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel” (Energion, 2012)
- “Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice” (Pilgrim, 2006)
- “Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus” (Wood Lake/Northstone, 2005)
- “The Energy of Love: Reiki and Christian Healing” (Energion, 2017).