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Making Sense Out of Alternative Medicine

by Dónal P. O'Mathúna, Ph.D.

Widespread news coverage of alternative medicine reflects growing interest in these therapies. In response, many medical schools and nursing colleges now teach courses in alternative therapies. Some are available in certain hospitals, and insurance companies sometimes cover them. What should Christians think of this cultural trend? We must seek to understand why people are interested in these therapies so that we can bring the power of Christ to bear on the underlying needs.

Many terms are used to describe these therapies: complementary, unconventional, holistic, fringe, or New Age medicine. Each term has different connotations contributing to different definitions of alternative medicine. Sometimes broad definitions give the impression that popular use is higher than may be the case. A frequently cited New England Journal of Medicine study found that 34% of Americans used some unconventional therapy during 1990, spending $13.7 billion. Included were alternatives like Chinese herbal medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy and energy healing. However, also included were therapies few would classify as alternatives: self-help groups, weight-loss programs and relaxation techniques!

Yet interest in the health benefits of lifestyle issues could be seen as an 'alternative' to a purely physical approach to health and healing. Modern medicine has often neglected the importance of lifestyle, relationships, stress, and spirituality. The difficulty in defining these terms should caution us against quickly endorsing or rejecting alternative medicine en masse. We believe Christians can welcome and affirm certain aspects of alternative medicine, but other aspects demand caution, and still others must be completely rejected.

The perceived emphasis on technology, drugs and surgery in modern medicine makes alternative medicine seem more attractive. People are frustrated with the impersonal treatment and financial pressures of hi-tech medicine. We as Christians can empathize with these concerns. Humans are not just bags of chemicals, but are embodied spiritual, emotional and relational beings (1 Thes 5:23; Heb 4:12). Any medicine which neglects patients' feelings, family dynamics, or lifestyle issues fails to care for the whole person (2 Sam 13:2; Prov 3:8; 17:22). Scripture, unlike modern or alternative medicine, also claims we cannot have complete health without dealing with our moral guilt (Ps 32:3-4; 1 Cor 11:29-30). Only Christ can 'treat' this.

Many seek alternatives when dealing with chronic illness or death. We must be sensitive to people's struggles in these trying times. But frantic searching after the latest technological or natural remedy is not the answer. We should certainly care for our bodies and pursue appropriate treatments, especially recognizing that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20). However, we should not worship our bodies and expect to be free of suffering. Paul prayed that the thorn in his flesh (thought by many to have been some illness) would be removed, yet it was not (2 Cor 12:7-10). He was comforted knowing his weakness strengthened the power of Christ in him. He learned, and calls on us to learn, to be content in any circumstance (Phil 4:11-13). We can also be comforted knowing that sickness, pain and death will be eradicated (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 21:4). We must base our hope on these promises, not the uncertainties of modern or alternative medicine.

Two biblical principles guide us in choosing treatments: stewardship, and avoiding evil practices. Stewardship should lead us to ask whether therapies work or not. Some alternative medicines have never been researched, but others have. Those found beneficial are gaining credibility among health care professionals, e.g. chiropractic for lower back problems, acupuncture for pain, and biofeedback for behavior modification. Lifestyle issues, stress reduction, and caring for the whole person, are demonstrably important. However, many alternative therapies have failed to demonstrate significant benefits in controlled trials, e.g. iridology, homeopathy, and aura healing. Yet media reports usually don't mention these, leaving the impression that no alternatives have been shown to be ineffective, and that criticisms are based only on biases.

The lack of consensus on a definition of alternative medicine causes problems here also. For example, one critic cited in Life noted that little scientific evidence backs up the claims of alternative medicines. The journalist responded that, "This is not entirely true," and mentioned studies dealing with massage, support groups, exercise, diet and meditation. However, his article had been describing practices such as craniosacral therapy, cupping, homeopathy and pulse diagnosis. Clearly, this is comparing apples with oranges! Yet these rhetorical tactics are commonplace with proponents of alternative medicine, and are not limited to the popular media.

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a popular nursing alternative therapy. Proponents claim people are primarily energy fields. These extend a few inches beyond the skin, and can be detected when meditating. Nurses pass their hands a few inches over patients' bodies without making contact. Imbalances in the energy field are corrected by "effortless effort" guided by the nurse's good intentions. Rochelle Mackey claimed in a nursing article that several studies show that TT reduces pain. The only one described, by TT proponent Thérèse Meehan, actually concluded "that TT does not significantly decrease postoperative pain." Meehan responded to Mackey's article, writing "that the effects of TT on pain are unclear and replication studies are needed before any conclusions can be drawn. . . . Other claims about outcomes are, in fact, speculation." Yet Mackey's article continues the illusion that TT is research-supported, while reviews of the research show this is clearly not the case.

Wasted resources must concern Christians, but so should the spiritual nature of some alternative medicines. TT's universal energy field is common in alternative medicine, called by various names like life energy, chi, and prana. Reflexology, Reiki, homeopathy, pulse diagnosis, etc., utilize it, although no physical evidence supports its existence! Some Christians even view this energy as God's power and promote these practices. We must evaluate this energy in light of its claims, and discern if it could be from God (1 John 4:1-3). We cannot buy into our culture's belief that if it's God for me, and Buddha for you, and life energy for them, we can all be happy and accept one another's ‘truths.'

God is a personal being to whom we can (and should) pray for healing (Jm 5:14-16). But we cannot expect to control God's power (Luke 4:22-27; Acts 8:18-23). Rather, we should submit to his will for our lives (Jm 4:15). In contrast, life energy is an impersonal force accessible for healing through various techniques. Unlike God, however, it makes no moral claims on people. In effect, these practices offer control over divine power without the need to repent. What is promoted as alternative medicine is actually alternative religion. As one practitioner said in Time, "I got more from mind-body medicine than I bargained for: I got religion. . . . The God I have found is common to Moses and Muhammad, to Buddha and Jesus. . . . It is what the Cabala calls Ayin, Nothingness, No-Thingness. It is Spirit, Being, the All."

Belief in the existence of life energy is deeply rooted in Eastern mystical religions and Western occult traditions. One of TT's founders encourages use of divination. Barbara Brennan's Healing Touch recommends the use of spirit guides. Information about Reiki, an ancient Japanese therapy, is available through channeling. One alternative medicine encyclopedia notes that life force or prana "can be harnessed by the individual who sensitizes himself by certain occult practices." These include deep breathing, chanting mantras, advanced visualization and "secret rituals which have been closely guarded secrets of the highest mystery schools on earth . . . and beyond."

Even if therapies based on life energies do heal, Christians must be willing to forgo them. There are fates worse than illness and deformity in this life (Mark 9:43-48). We are to completely avoid the occult (Deu 18:9-14; Isa 8:19; Acts 19:18-19; 1 Cor 10:19-22). False prophets used divination and visions, but only revealed the futility and deception of their minds (Jer 23:16-17; Eze 13:6-8). Sorcery, spells and astrology are useless in our hour of need (Isa 47:9-13).

Instead, we must turn to God and the resources he gives us. We can learn to face illness and death with Paul's hope and contentment (Phil 1:21-24). We should pursue health care as good stewards of the lives and gifts we have been given (1 Cor 12:7). But our focus should be on glorifying God and serving others (Rom 14:7-9). When people see us loving others as God loves us, they will be drawn to his love (John 13:35). They can then experience the true healing which comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Modern health care could be changed to better reflect the care God wants given to everyone. In doing this, we may gain some insights from alternative medicine, but we must reject those religious practices based on Eastern and occult religions.

Sources Used

Barbara Ann Brennan, Hands of Light: A Guide to Healing Through the Human Energy Field (New York: Bantam Books, 1988).

George Howe Colt, "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me," Life (September 1996): 34-50.

David M. Eisenberg, et al, "Unconventional Medicine in the United States," New England Journal of Medicine 328 (January 1993): 246-52.

Malcolm Hulke, ed., "Spiritual Healing," The Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine and Self-Help (New York: Schocken Books, 1979).

Marty Kaplan, "Ambushed by Spirituality," Time (24 June 1996): 62.

Rochelle Mackey, "Discover the Healing Power of Therapeutic Touch," American Journal of Nursing (April 1995): 27-32.

Thérèse C. Meehan, "Therapeutic Touch and Postoperative Pain: A Rogerian Research Study," Nursing Science Quarterly 6 (1993): 69-78.

Thérèse C. Meehan, "Quackery and Pseudo-Science," in Letters, American Journal of Nursing (July 1995): 17.

Dónal P. O'Mathúna, "Postmodern Impact: Health Care," in The Death of Truth (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996).

Dónal P. O'Mathúna, "Therapeutic Touch: Pleasing to God?" Journal of Christian Nursing, in press.

Diane Stein, Essential Reiki: A Complete Guide to an Ancient Healing Art (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1995).