Science, Meaning, and Discernment
- ISBN: 9780802870933
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: October 2020
Sarah Coakley writes that Spiritual Healing: Science, Meaning, and Discernment is the terminus of a trilogy of edited works she has put together over many years which “have investigated from various methodological directions the body and its multiple meanings” (232) through a continual theme. That theme is the relation to and interface of our bodies with, to borrow a Tillichian term, matters of ultimate concern. When we say one is spiritually healed, what do we mean by “spiritual” and “healing?” How do we identify occasions of spiritual healing and, once they have been identified, how do we interpret or understand them? Questions such as these guide the various lines of inquiry found within this book as its contributors investigate spiritual healing in variegated manners.
The book does rather sterling work in terms of its offering manifold perspectives. Readers will be treated to views from religious history (chapters 2 and 3), neuroscience (chapter 4), and philosophy of mind (chapter 7) among others which Coakley carefully stitches together. Each pursues the book’s goal to avoid an overly “spooky” (154) conception of spiritual healing. In chapter 5, Malcolm Jeeves urges us to follow relevant neurological data in “understanding how those aspects of spirituality that mobilize and depend upon cognitive processes are not free-floating but firmly embodied” [emphasis in original] (100). We cannot simply jump to “normative theological claims” (10), but neither can we ignore the deep meaning-making and worldview shaping powers of religious belief which impact “what we see in the world and influence the ways we act on the world” (211). And, indeed, no essay in this book allows us the opportunity to take up such an uncritical position.
Part 1 focuses on the sorts of hermeneutical approaches, and it does so in biblical as well as more recently historical contexts. In chapter 1, Beverly Roberts Gaventa writes that “spiritual healing in the Bible extends well beyond the correction of an individual’s problem and is deeply embedded in human communities that are themselves restored and empowered by healing” (29). This point is echoed by other contributors throughout the book, and it is given some helpful context in its companion chapters from Emma Anderson and Heather Curtis (chapters 2 and 3). As the former surveys healings associated with Marian apparitions in France and the latter so-called “faith healing” movements in American Protestantism, both highlight spiritual healing as rooted in the places and persons in which it is experienced rather than merely being a unilateral intervention.
Perhaps most interesting to those with some theological or philosophical background will be the scientific insights provided in Part 2. Within chapters 4-6 there are pleasantly accessible accounts of relevant neurological research that prompt us to consider such questions as this: what might it mean for us to interpret spiritual healings within religious communities if we, seemingly, have strong biological hypotheses for how they occur? Especially relevant in this section is the placebo effect. For example, Howard Fields describes placebo analgesia as a helpful lens through which we can see that “religious belief or faith potentially exerts its greatest healing effect by fostering confidence that there will be a positive outcome.” (93) However, and quite intriguingly, Anne Harrington notes a study (127) in which those that knew they were being prayed for prior to a medical procedure actually had worse outcomes than others being studied! Such expertly condensed findings as these seem most likely to fulfill the book’s back cover promise that “discerning believers and skeptics alike” will find satisfaction within it.
Part 3 is likely the book’s weakest section. Particularly at issue is its relative inaccessibility, general lack of payoff in its conclusions, and, in the case of Philip Clayton’s contribution (chapter 7), its oddity. As regards the first two issues, Clayton and Stephen Clark’s chapters respectively plumb deep interrogative depths in the philosophy of mind and nature of healing, but at times their philosophical spelunking can go further than seems necessary to get their points across. For example, Clark’s many engagements with primary sources from Plotinus are illuminating, but when they are coupled with his fairly lengthy perfunctory observations and the comparatively succinct conclusion that “our notions of spiritual health are problematic, open to challenge from recognizably honest and honorable thinkers” (180), one wonders if more agility might have been possible. Clayton’s chapter also builds slowly only to propose a thesis he calls “perhaps radical and unusual: that one should turn to the metaphysics or the constructive theology of healing not as an escape from the epistemic challenge of science but in response to it and guided by it.” (148) However, aside from those still convinced of a fundamental divide between the theological or philosophical and the empirically scientific, it is difficult to ascertain what contemporary thinkers might agree with Clayton that this thesis is either radical or unusual. As such, his work which follows in chapter 7 falls rather flat.
In Part 4, however, a kind of rhetorical corner is turned and the missteps of its immediate predecessors are not repeated. In addressing the theological anthropology of healing processes, Thomas Csordas (chapter 9) spends significant time with fieldwork-based primary sources but provides both stimulating in-line commentary and a more dynamic, multifaceted conclusion. Such is also the case in chapter 10 as John Swinton addresses the pastoral care dimensions of spiritual healing, but Swinton additionally draws the reader back to some initial considerations from the book’s first part through his thorough application of a different sort of hermeneutical lens to his locus of inquiry. These chapters, along with those in Part 2, may be of the most use to practitioners like chaplains and ministers, both of whom are likely to experience productive challenges through engagement with this volume. They, along with graduate students (particularly in theology or divinity) as well as faculty, are recommended this book to stimulate their thinking and practice whether it be inside or outside of classroom settings.
Aaron Brian Davis is an incoming PhD student in divinity at the University of St. Andrews.Aaron DavisDate Of Review:April 29, 2022