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  • Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity
  • Jon Fuller S.J. (bio)
Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity. By Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meador. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 192 pp. $25.00

In recent years clinicians have becoming increasingly interested in understanding the religious frameworks that some patients use to understand their lives and [End Page 241] relationships, their way of "making meaning" in the world. Having passed through a phase of medical history when religion was seen at worst as inimical to and at best as only vaguely relevant to diagnosis and care, many clinicians have moved beyond a purely biomedical approach to one that values incorporating the religious context of the patient's life into clinical assessment and care. This development can provide a greater understanding of the role that religious affiliation plays in the patient's interpretation of illness and suffering. Moreover, it may also help identify critically important individuals, groups and practices that can assist the patient's move toward greater health or toward a greater capacity to deal with chronic illness and disability.

The authors of Heal Thyself express several significant concerns about this blurring of lines between clinical medicine and religion, however. The first, though lesser issue the authors address is what they perceive as the increasing impression in the West that medicine and science will ultimately triumph over disease. In this view, given enough time and research, human beings should expect to live longer and in greater health, with disease and disability being ultimately conquered by science. The authors argue that this attitude of entitlement leads human beings to lose sight of their "creaturely" and dependent status, turns the concept of "good health" into a commodity that should be universally acquirable, and inappropriately focuses on the health of individuals as opposed to the health of communities.

Their second, more important concern is that, given the commodification of "good health" and its identification as the new telos, they are anxious about a trend that encourages religious practice "in large part because of its alleged salutary effects on physical and mental health" (5). For example, the authors discuss studies which compare denominational differences in cancer mortality, which support the hypothesis that adults who frequently attend religious services have healthier immune systems, which show a correlation between lower diastolic blood pressure and religious activities, and which associate regular attendance at religious services with spending less money on healthcare and less time in the hospital.

The authors here raise several critical observations. First, they are concerned from a methodological perspective that a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy may be responsible for the linking of religious practice and good health. More important is the implicit "turning on its head" of the relationship between religious practice and attainment of health. The authors point out that some individuals are being encouraged to take up religious practice not because they are true believers in a confessional denomination and want that religious practice to center their lives, but rather because certain practices appear to be means to achieve an end judged to be good in itself. (Here they distinguish between religious "practices" that are engaged in for the sake of the activities themselves and for "the kind of person they form," and religious "techniques" whose goal "is the immediate results they produce for the person employing them" (91). They claim that religion is being promoted not as an opportunity for expression of religious belief and for becoming part of a confessional community, but only because it promises alleged outcomes for which it is being used as a means. In their view this not only misrepresents the truth (the causal links having never been proven), but more importantly promotes idolatry by elevating "good health" to the status of an ultimate end toward the achievement of which one may legitimately use or manipulate religious practice (and even God). [End Page 242] The authors see this as yet another manifestation of disturbing trends in late modernity that lionize individualism, narcissism, and therapeutics.

The introduction to the book and the first chapter document well the history of the "medicine and spirituality movement," and raise...


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