Alternative Therapies

The Revd Stephen Parsons gives a Christian overview of alternative healing in our present culture.


This article was first published in the Winter 1999 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

The Revd Stephen Parsons is the Vicar of Lechlade and Diocesan Adviser on the Ministry of Healing to the Bishop of Gloucester. Until recently he was also editor of ‘Health and Healing’, the magazine for the Churches’ Council for Health and Healing. In 1995 he gave the Henry Cooper Lecture for the Guild of St Raphael. He is the author of ‘Searching for Healing’ (Lion 1995), which surveys the whole healing scene (including alternative therapies) in considerable detail. His latest book, ‘Ungodly fear: Fundamentalist Christianity and the abuse of power’, is due to be published in May 2000.

© Guild of St Raphael

What's the Alternative?

It is quite clear to anyone who looks at the provision of health and healing in our society today that many people do not look only to the medical profession for assistance and help. The newspapers, notably the Daily Mail and The Times give us a lot of encouragement to look beyond the medics and sample one of many supplementary therapies on offer. These are enormously varied and range from physical manipulation to drinking small quantities of water infused with the ‘essence’ of particular flowers. Seldom is the church mentioned as a resource for healing though various forms of ‘spirituality’ are named as well as a class of people known variously as ‘faith’ or ‘spiritual’ healers.

The tendency to condemn

A Christian who wishes to retain some perspective within the supermarket of alternative healing methods is tempted to retreat into a ghetto and declare that all the alternative methods of healing on offer outside the church and the medical profession are suspect at best and tainted with occult even demonic practices at worst. Such suspicion is not always misplaced but any blanket judgement is likely to be a blunt instrument in terms of realistic assessment of what is going on in all these therapies. We have witnessed over the past twenty five years a great upsurge in an interest in naming as occult or demonic those things that do not fit into a particular narrow perspective on the Christian faith. In some settings this is so strong that it is not incorrect to see such Christians as living in a dualistic universe where God is equally matched against a demonic foe aided and abetted by numerous minions. Sickness is then seen as an incursion of evil against an individual. Thus healing will inevitably involve some kind of exorcism. Such a theological perspective is to me deeply repugnant and seems to reflect a desire on the part of certain people to exercise power over others in the name of God. The demonisation of sickness may thus simply be a complicated power game by certain Christian leaders with which their followers are happy to collude.

Models of understanding alternative healing

The first task in understanding what is going on in the world of alternative healing methods is to attempt to classify them in some sort of order in terms of the models that they use. A ‘model’ here means the pattern of language and conceptual framework that practitioners of particular therapies use to describe their work. While the majority of these models do not fit in well with scientific or even common-sense methods of explanation, that is no necessary barrier to their usefulness. We need to be reminded that the world of post-Einsteinian physics uses models of explanation that defy common sense and go beyond our capacity to imagine or conceptualise. The reason that many alternative healings use models in a somewhat strange way is that they emerge from cultures and philosophies that may be distant from the Western models of thinking with which we are familiar. On the other hand Christians have long since got used to thinking and holding discourse in the categories and models of first century Palestine in order to grapple with the meaning of the writings of the New Testament. In their confident proclamation of these categories of thought in preaching and teaching, they often forget how strange they sound to minds that are unused to hearing them. In a similar way we need patience and sympathy if we are to hear sympathetically what the practitioners of alternative healing are saying to us. In short we need to enter the philosophies and metaphysical systems out of which these systems of healing were born.

Philosophical and metaphysical origins

When I undertook some extensive reading for a book that appeared in 1995, Searching for Healing, I was surprised to discover that the philosophical framework for many of our alternative healing practices comes not only from China and India but also from nineteenth century America. This nation that sponsored the great evangelical revivals was also home to a wide variety of alternative forms of thought. One word that might, with some risk of simplification, sum up the many alternative streams of metaphysical thinking in America in the nineteenth century would be ‘Transcendentalism’. This is a belief that beyond the visible world there is a spiritual dimension to which we need to attune ourselves if we are to find health, meaning and understanding of life. It is a style of thinking that gave birth to Spiritualism and Christian Science as well as the wide variety of alternative belief systems that undergird the so-called New Age philosophies of our own time. This basic American metaphysic is also echoed in theologies of Christian healing, especially the Health and Wealth Gospel of the Television evangelists. The one who ‘believes’ will receive the blessing he desires, as though the thought itself has created the reality.

‘Energy fields’

Alternative medicine in many of its guises finds the notion of an accessible spiritual realm, to which our bodies and the energy fields that surround them may tune in, a congenial one. Chiropractors were, until relatively recently, trained within such a metaphysical framework. I use the word ‘metaphysical’ rather than religious because the acceptance of the idea of the body and its energy fields attuning to transcendent dimensions of reality was not considered a ‘creed’, rather a way of understanding the way things are. There was no implicit moral dimension to this ‘energy’; it merely existed. Homeopathy also traditionally feeds on ideas of energy balancing and attunement. While individual practitioners of particular therapies may have ‘outgrown’ the need to use this kind of language to talk about their treatments, it is clear that many of the therapies, especially those of American origin, originally emerge from such a background of understanding. It is still there to be found by those who scratch below the surface of what contemporary therapists may say. The theories of Dr Edward Bach and his Bach Flower remedies clearly reflect this same nineteenth century Western metaphysical tradition.

Eastern religions

Beyond the ideas of nineteenth century America and to some extent undergirding them are the ideas of traditional Eastern religions. Most of us are familiar with the notion of ‘Qi’ in Chinese thought which is a form of energy coursing through the body along lines known as meridians. The use of needles is thought to assist the passage of this energy in such a way that promotes good health. Reflexology, the massage of the underneath of the feet comes out of the same basic thought pattern. In Hindu thought similar ideas about health are contained in the idea of ‘prana’, the invisible energy that surrounds every living being. The classical Hindu form of medicine, Ayurveda, also sets great store by the idea of balance of the elements from which the body is formed, earth, water, fire, air and ether. Such a balance is achieved through dietary means or through the use of spiritual techniques such as Yoga.

Understanding healing touch

Alongside techniques of healing which call themselves ‘medicine’, there are a number of other healing techniques that depend on no physical methods at all beyond light touch. There are for example numerous people, most commonly women, who claim to be able to ‘heal’ by simply being with their ‘patients’ and laying their hands on them or over them. Few of these healers know how their techniques ‘work’; indeed such speculation seems of little importance to the claim that pain is relieved and illnesses are shortened or removed instantly. Those who do attempt to explain what they are doing will sometimes use the language of manipulating the ‘energy’ which in some way surrounds everyone. The state of mind of the healer is of great importance to the whole process and words like ‘attunement’ and ‘relaxation’ will often be used. The so-called ‘faith’ healing comes into this category. It is unclear what is the meaning of ‘faith’ in this context or what is the object of such faith. Certainly those who are organised as members of such organisations as the National Federation of Spiritual Healers will refer to themselves as ‘healers’ without any adjective applied. The existence of such an organisation implies that not only do the members believe that standards of expertise and ethics need to be maintained in the practice of these techniques but also that these methods can be taught and developed through teaching and training.

‘Spirit guides’

In America a technique known as ‘therapeutic touch’ is taught to nurses in certain hospitals. This touch is offered without any particular religious background being assumed. The books on therapeutic touch draw on the same metaphysical traditions connected with ‘energy’ fields which belong to the physical therapies. Healing will involve redirecting these energy fields in a patient which have become imbalanced through illness. Among those who use ‘touch’ in this way, there will be those who claim to have ‘spirit guides’. Such claims cause disquiet among Christians but this kind of awareness may well be a little understood sensitivity to beings that Christians have traditionally identified as angelic entities.

Evaluating ‘healing’

From my perspective there is no doubt that such ‘natural’ gifts of healing exist. Whether they go deep into helping a sickness or other cause of distress or merely promote a sense of well-being, the fact remains that a certain amount of good is often achieved in such techniques. There is no need to invoke demonic causation as an explanation for what is happening. If we are pressed as to what is taking place here, we need to be reminded of various phenomena that we are familiar with when people come together in a social or family context. We have all experienced an encounter which has left us drained of energy because a particular individual seems to have the capacity to exhaust us just by being there. The same thing is observable with a person that we describe as having a generosity of spirit which translates itself into making us feel good and energised. How the interactions work to create these phenomena is not part of any scientific discipline. We have an equal problem when we try to describe what is going on between two people who love each other or between the mother and her small child. It is in no way a trivialisation of healing phenomena to suggest that a mother who comforts a hurt child is tapping into the same phenomenon of healing as any ‘healer’. Words and traditional concepts simply fail to grapple with this multi-faceted reality with which we are being faced.

A world full of mysteries

‘Natural’ healing may belong to the immense of range of realities that occur whenever people relate to one another. The fact that we do not understand it or are able to classify it does not make it less real. Love is a reality which spans the emotional, physical and spiritual levels of human functioning and we do not withhold love because we do not understand fully what it is. I feel that Christians need to learn to be far more generous towards things and phenomena that they do not understand, and see that we live in a world that is full of mysteries which transcend our understanding whether from a scientific or ‘Biblical’ model. If we are to identify and discriminate properly in the area of alternative medicine as well as the area we have identified as ‘natural healing’, we need two things. First we need to suggest a fair and realistic model of the way that such practices could become objectionable or evil; secondly we need to know what Christians think they are doing when they pray for and minister to the sick so that the comparisons and contrast with something wholesome and good may become more apparent.

Objections to alternative healing?

What makes a healing technique or method objectionable? Clearly, as I have suggested, a simple appeal to the idea that healing powers of an unknown source are automatically evil is not an adequate approach. The energy that makes people better may come from medicines, surgery, Christian prayer or other forms of human interaction which we do not understand. Simply to say that the first three are safe and everything else is suspect is not good enough and may throw out a lot of good things in the process. We need nevertheless to recognise that there are evils lurking potentially in the healing process. The chief of these is the abuse of power. Such abuse can pollute every form of healing whether medical, Christian or otherwise. This abuse of power may involve finance, sexual or emotional exploitation or simply a distressing experience of being used by another person. Sadly abusive practice among Christian healing methods has come to light over the last few years and we need to be aware of this fact. I am sure that such evil also exists among alternative healing practitioners as well, though in most cases professionally trained practitioners are equally alert to ethical issues as Christians. For Jesus, the naming and identification of power abuse was a major aspect of his ministry and indeed it was the issue that aroused his anger in a way that nothing else did. A further problem arises when, as part of a treatment, an individual is caught with a spirituality or mental technique that takes him away from his traditional religious roots. This will normally produce some inner conflict. Most of us find it difficult enough to be good Christians without superimposing on our traditional methods of prayer cultural patterns of spirituality from a totally alien culture. Inter-faith dialogue does not demand that we all adopt an idiosyncratic pot-pourri of beliefs and spiritual practices. Rather we are encouraged, whether Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, to rediscover the heritage of our spiritual roots.

Rediscovering Christian Healing

The main source of sound discernment towards the healing practices of other traditions and belief systems is a good grasp of what Christian healing consists of. This is of course a big subject but it is possible to outline a few broad principles. A Christian will never regard healing or wholeness as simply adequate physical functioning. Wholeness or ‘Shalom’ is the experience, as the hymn puts it, of being ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’. It is a state of being right with God, one’s self, one’s neighbours and the whole created world. To be whole is to be as God meant us to become and to partake of the ‘Kingdom’ that Christ came to share. None of us achieve that state of wholeness but everything we do as Christians, our prayer, worship, self-examination and care for one another, helps us to move towards that target. The Christian ministry of healing must be seen in the context of this complete process. When a Christian prays with another Christian for healing, there is the implicit prayer that not only will the ‘sick’ individual find relief from their physical ailment, but that they will also move further into the wholeness that God wills for them. That wholeness will include forgiveness of their sin, a new beginning in their relationships with God and their fellows and a deeper grasp of the journey through life that God has prepared for them. From this perspective of the meaning of wholeness, the offerings of alternative medicine and spirituality look a little thin. Likewise when Christian healing is divorced from the whole Christian notion of wholeness, it too seems rather shallow. If we do start from a ‘high’ notion of Christian wholeness, then our critique of other healing systems is that they are, whether or not contaminated by power issues, incomplete and less that totally adequate. Their effectiveness at a purely physical level is another matter. They may or may not approach medical healing in their effectiveness; that is for others to assess.

Obsession with the occult

The Christian response to and understanding of alternative healing cultures has been dogged by an unhealthy obsession with wanting to associate it with the occult. That has been, I believe, a totally unhelpful approach. Christians have been thus blinded to the real issue of evil within healing practices, including their own, which is the use of inappropriate and abusive power to damage and hurt individuals. Jesus himself recognised the existence of power structures that devalue and dehumanise people as a great evil and so should we. A true evaluation of alternative healing will want to see it, not as evil, but as being good as far it goes, but nevertheless subject to the same potential for corruption as any other form of healing. Also insofar as the metaphysical system on which it is based is incomplete as a statement of humanity’s true needs, so the healings that emerge from it will be incomplete. Such an evaluation will come from Christians appreciating afresh the true resources of their faith which lead them towards wholeness in its widest and broadest sense. That vision of true wholeness in the Christian sense, an approach which embraces the existence of evil as well as good, will always help Christians to name the good and the evil in the world around them in a realistic and helpful way. Such an evaluation of the strange world of alternative healing will be of help both to those in the Church but also to the world at large.

© Guild of St Raphael