Thursday, September 06, 2007

Notes on spirituality and health

I heard a talk today about spirituality and health, given by a clinical psychologist. The guy’s heart was in the right place, let me put it that way, and some people got into interesting discussions afterwards. So we’re groping toward a fruitful understanding of these issues and relationships.

I got a handle on one of the things that sometimes bugs me in these discussions: There’s a causation vs. correlation problem. Today’s speaker alluded to a finding that people who attend church regularly have a higher life expectancy than non-churchgoers. To me that says that (1) taking care of your health and (2) religious observance are two behaviors of a certain type of person—two manifestations of a syndrome. But it’s silly to believe that one caused the other. The implication of “Faith Heals” is believing that exposure to stained glass is like chemotherapy, or that prayers are like radioactive isotopes that bombard tumors. The last few months I have been making more of an effort at praying for people who are sick or in trouble. I would like to have some informed theological discussion of what that means—a theory or theories of how prayer is supposed to work. I think prayer is worthwhile, but I don't believe in faith healing.

I wrote once, paraphrasing another of these Spirituality & Health brown-bag lectures: “The best measure of religiosity is not fidelity but fluency. The specific content of any worldview, religious or not, is less significant than whether one can articulate it coherently.” I was reminded of that today when our psychologist quoted a study of responses to the 9/11 attacks, that showed people who attributed divine implications to the attacks (in other words, that the death and destruction were an insult to the respondent’s view of the sacred) were markedly more affected, more prone to depression and PTSD symptoms, and more likely to endorse extreme statements such as “We should hunt down Al Qaeda and kill them, their children, and their children’s children.” (The speaker was proud of coming up with this survey item, because of the Biblical echoes in the language.) The speaker’s thesis is that spirituality has health effects for good or for ill, that spiritual struggle can lead to measurable health setbacks. I have a problem with any framework that credits “spirituality” to a person who vows vengeance on his enemies. The definitions of spirituality and struggle need to be examined. Fluency is the key—a robust and mature spiritual framework that can absorb new experiences, even awful and unthinkable ones, with integrity. A healthy spirituality can stand up to doubt and struggle, the way a healthy marriage can survive “for better or for worse.”

Funny how different people interpret the words “spirituality” and “religion” differently. One woman in today’s audience, who shared that she was gay, put a negative spin on “religion” because it implied hateful authoritarian structures. In theological education I observe that people put a negative spin on “spirituality” as religion without any rigor, with all the demands and coherence drained out of it. Our speaker’s view (which I take seriously) is that you shouldn’t isolate either term, that every individual’s spirituality is informed by organized religion in American culture—e.g. that even if you’ve fled from the repressive church or mosque of your childhood, your identity is formed by it, just like a repressive father or mother.

The speaker commented that it was much easier to present to audiences of clergy, chaplains, or religious laypeople than to psychologists or journalists. The latter tend to be dismissive of religion as a legitimate subject of study. It occurs to me that in this field, HIS field, the most progress has been made in the hospice movement and palliative care. When confronted with end-of-life situations, caregivers abandon the measurement of “positive and negative health benefits” in favor of accepting the inevitable, making peace with family and community and self. Palliative care turns the whole medical mindset on its head. Acceptance, denial, and hope in the face of suffering—these are key elements in the intersection of spirituality and health.

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