The Great Divide: Faith and Medicine, continued

In one of my first posts in this blog I took an historical look at faith-healing, wondering whether the stark divide that we see some Christians make between scientific or rational medicine and trusting God to grant healing miraculously had any basis in the way Christians have seen the matter in the past.  This question was raised for me by the prosecution of a couple in Philadelphia for failing to take their child for medical treatment, choosing instead to rely on prayer. The child died of a simple infection. The couple and their church’s rejection of medical technology and know-how is based on their belief that this was the practice of the first century church. I set out to look into the matter.

My conclusion was that in the first century, and before and after as well, there was no such divide between rational medicine and religious healing. While many Christian teachers and preachers called believers to not forget to seek God’s healing in prayer, and to realize that some sicknesses may be more spiritual in nature, it simply was not the case that they saw a radical difference between rational medicine and faith healing.

I came across further support of this idea while browsing through the library of Westminster Theological Seminary, not far from my home. The 2012/2013 issue of the Bulletin of the John Rylands Univeristy Library of Manchester (volume 89 Supplement) is dedicated to “ancient medical and healing systems and their connections to modern western medicine.”

I thought I’d share some of what that issue said.

In the Introduction, Rosalie David makes the point that a divide rational medicine and religious healing was not recognized. There were indeed two distinct influences to treatment, the more physical treatments we consider rational, and “magico-religious” treatments that dealt with spiritual powers, but it was never one or the other all the time.  Different situations called for different treatments.

A Shrine to Asclepius in Athens turned into a Christian Chapel

A Shrine to Asclepius in Athens turned into a Christian Chapel

“The assumption that, in antiquity, healing achieved through rational means was in direct opposition to magico-religious treatment has now been largley superseded, with modern scholarship accepting that no definitive distinction can be drawn between so-called rational and irrational methods (a categorization which the ancient healer themselves would not have recognized)” p. 8

Another article, “The Cult of Asclepius: It’s Origins and Early Development”, by Trevor Curnow, confirms the wide-ranging popularity and reach of the Asclepius cult throughout the Roman Empire up to the time of Constantine, when it was replaced by the church. There were some 700 cult centers throughout the empire. These houses of healing were places to receive both rational and religious treatment.

The most thorough article is “Roman Medicine: Science or Religion?” by Audrey Cruse. Did the Romans see a divide between rational and religious healing? No. She quotes a Hippocratic treatise, a Greek writing (the Greeks have usually been seen as the ones beginning the rational practice of medicine), “On the Sacred Disease”, where the writer seemingly mocks superstitious, magical practices, only to replace them with other practices we would regard as superstitious.  Secondly, the Asclepius cult combined the two with no contradiction noticed. And third, surgeons’ tools often had religious symbols on them, and doctors often took Asclepaides as a common name in order to identify with the God, giving their treatments credibility. Cruse draws a lesson for modern medicine from all this:

“Just as there was considerable diversity of knowledge and practice in medicine during the Roman era, so diversity remains a feature of the medical scene today. Indeed, we now have a much larger world which encompasses numerous religions and belief systems. In many of these faiths the traditions of religious and orthodox medicine survive side by side! As can be seen at the sanctuary at Lourdes, for example…Religion in medicine can be present in any our all cultures, today just as it was in antiquity.” p. 252

The notion that either we go to the doctor or we pray to God for divine healing winds up being a modern idea. And those who advocate only divine healing, far from being in tune with the early centuries of the church, show themselves to be thoroughly modern in their failure to see that the two, rational and divine healing, go hand in hand.

While the Journal is not available on line without subscribing, for those interested in exploring these ideas further, Audrey Cruse did write a book published in 2004 called Roman Medicine, published by Tempus.

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