Books / Pluralistic World / Spirituality / Work and Rest

Basic Questions on Alternative Medicine (Gary P. Stewart, 1998)

Place yourself in this situation. You have been told you have an illness for which conventional medicine does not have a known or desirable treatment and that many doctors don’t believe exist—let’s say the dreaded “dentopuritic syndrome*” whose main symptom is uncontrollable itching of the teeth. There are no laboratory tests to prove you have it, but you suffer significantly, always wondering why other people don’t have the urge to chew on a Brillo pad.

You desire healing, you lift your concerns to the Lord in prayer, and you wait. Suddenly like a flash out of providence a subtitle on Yoga Illustrated grabs you: “Healing Touch Cured My Teeth-Itch.” The national magazine touts a particular yoga vinyasa as “the path to breathing out the itch of dentopuritic disease.” As you are paging through the article, a stranger notices and reveals that he too has DPS, and has been able to control his symptoms by chelation therapy and mega-dose herbal supplements.

What is this flood of potential alternative therapies? A gift of God? Or a trap that would lead you to rely less upon his omnipotent rule, that would substitute for grace, and that would invite an unwanted spiritual force into your life? Should you ask your doctor? Would she dismiss your suffering, faith, or intuition? Should you ask your elders? Would they just stare with a blank expression, not knowing enough detail to provide you with fitting guidance?

The widespread nature of alternative therapies and the modern idolatry of perpetual youth have made the above quandary an everyday occurrence. Sadly, the more we learn about health, the more complicated our lives become. The questions raised above are difficult to answer, but necessary to address.

We must make choices on how we care for our body-temple. We must evaluate the trustworthiness and motivation of each messenger and the validity and applicability of the message. Your next-door secular humanist will find it difficult enough to answer the question “Does it work and is it safe?” The Christian has an additional level of discernment to reach for: an examination of her situation in light of the truth of the Gospel and recognition of her position with relation to her creator/ redeemer. In other words, “Is it lawful and wise to utilize?”

As a Christian family doctor that practices an ever-increasing amount of nutritional and preventive medicine I am accountable to God for the therapies I recommend. I teach and treat to the best of my ability and try to model my teachings to those who come to me for help. While there are individuals that derive no benefit from my efforts, there are many who note a significant improvement in their mental, spiritual, and physical well-being.

This sense of ‘well-being’ is a reflection of how closely an individual’s perception of health and current experience match. How we define health dramatically influences our relationship with healers and our evaluation of therapeutic modalities. I have the privilege of caring for a man who seems to have half of the diseases in my internal medicine textbook, yet sees himself as healthy and able to contribute to the lives of those around him. Others, more numerous, have little objective disease, but much dis-ease about life.

The amount the U.S. spends on health care is expected to rise to $1.37 trillion in 2002. That’s equal to 13.9% of the gross domestic product. Is this right? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). Is our health an idol? Is our relentless search for healing in part a symptom of the disease of faithlessness?

The Christian’s perspective of Health should be fundamentally different given our knowledge that our nature is fallen, our salvation is secure, our mission is divine and our value is priceless. In modern times I believe we understand health as a greater good than blessedness. This is a perception that is well worth re-examination. People can be blessed, and therefore healthy, despite poor circumstances. For an exercise in understanding the depth of health our God would have for us go to the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-12) and replace the word blessed with healthy.

Our definition of Healing should have spiritual-eternal and physical-temporal facets; our embodied souls and our ensouled bodies must each be treated as an intentional creation of our God. Our bodies and human relationships teach us experientially about our Creator and serve as an ongoing analogy of our continuing need for grace. Some of us may need more teaching than others.

Our Healer must always be recognized to be the one, true God and not His agents on this earth. There are lawful and unlawful forms of healing for the follower of the one true God. Two kings of Israel illustrate this.

Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’” So Elijah went (2 Kings 1:2-4).

In contrast, King Hezekiah of Judah became deathly ill and was told by the prophet Isaiah that he would not recover. Hezekiah chose to respond differently than Ahaziah. Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go and tell Hezekiah, This is what the LORD, the God of your father David says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life” (Isaiah 38:2-5 and 2 Kings 20:2-6).

God’s reply to the kings shows that our health care choices are not value neutral. Our obedience and submission to the one true God must be paramount and not denigrated by the form of healing we pursue—whether conventional or alternative.

Still, the questions remain. What is a person with DPS to do? Does it work? Is it safe? Is it lawful? Is it wise? Should I use it? Clearly, more information is needed about DPS and its treatment. References on alternative medicine abound at the bookstores, but few address the topic from a Christian perspective. However, there are three recent publications which all deal with the integration of Christian faith and alternative medicine.

The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity as part of their “BioBasics Series” has published a basic, concise guide, Basic Questions on Alternative Medicine: What is Good and What is Not—quite a lofty undertaking for less than 100 small pages. Authored by a seven person team, it exudes the wisdom of counsel, speaking clearly and concisely on the interaction of faith and alternative medicine. The question-answer format is very easy to navigate and the entire book may be read in a few hours.

Examining Alternative Medicine: An Inside Look at the Benefits and Risks, by Paul C. Reisser, MD, Dale Mabe, DO, and Robert Velarde. I found the book to be well-written and persuasive rather than informative in its style. Several hot topics of Alternative Medicine and its mainstream leaders (Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra) are given a chapter for thoughtful discussion.

The role of postmodern thought and the rise in acceptance of alternative therapies is appropriately titled “Escape From Reason.” The authors state, “…if we muzzle the skeptic, insist that ‘how I feel’ is the only basis for evaluating any treatment and demand that any and all claims about healing are equally valid, we can bid medical progress farewell.” A discussion of homeopathy and Therapeutic Touch details the seemingly absurd assertions of these two fields of practice and explores the difficulty a post-modern culture imposes on the disciplined investigation of the claims made.

Mabe, in a chapter entitled “Why I Left: A Former New Age Practitioner Tells His Story,” beautifully recounts the grace of God in his life and the reconciliation of faith and alternative medicine in his practice. Unfortunately, I found the general tone of this book to be somewhat arrogant. I can understand how the authors desire to maintain truth and objectivity, but truth is not made strong-er by prideful connotation. If you want to sharpen your conventional medicine axe, their grinding wheel is spinning at full clip.

Finally, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook by Dónal O’Mathúna, PhD, and Walt Larimore, MD, is really two books in one. The first several chapters examine health, disease and suffering, principles of good health, and an overview of conventional, alternative, and ‘Christian’ therapies. The later chapters are a well-researched and structured encyclopedic evaluation of popular alternative therapies, herbal remedies, vitamins and dietary supplements. It includes a scripture index as well as a subject index. I found the book easy (and interesting) to read, broad in scope, focused in detail, with easy to understand summaries of each topic. Discussion was fair and respectful, yet decisive when Biblical truth gave such direction. Extensive scriptural notation and contextual biblical quotations abounded in the text. Espe-cially enlightening discussions revolved around “Christian therapies” such as the Hallelujah Diet—a vegetarian diet focused on raw foods and barley supplements. The authors let the Bible speak for itself in evaluating this “Diet from God” and its founder and proponent Rev. George Malkmus, giving criticism and praise where it’s due. Finally, Alternative Medicine also effectively turns the examination microscope back upon conventional medicine. I highly recommend this book.

Let’s come back to your case of DPS. After investigating Yoga, you learn that it is Hindu in origin and that traditional yogic exercises of posture and breath are intended to culminate in spiritual enlightenment. One way this occurs is in the experience of “Kundalini arousal.” In Hindu mythology Kundalini is the serpent goddess who rests at the base of the spine and when aroused travels up the spine, activating the person’s prana (life-force breath) and clearing the person’s chakras (energy stations). Doesn’t sound so ideal for the Christian, eh? I interviewed a Christian that maintains a regular yoga practice and she said, “When you practice a series of asanas (or poses) and combine that with deep breathing and relaxation it produces a heightened level of spiritual awareness. As a Christian, after a yoga practice I can (and do) open my Bible and discern with greater clarity because the mental and physical distractions of this world have been removed, creating space for the workings of the Holy Spirit. The general focus of yoga is to empty oneself to be open to the divine. Since I know no other divine but Christ who lives in me, I am meditating in obedience, but the same practice for another person who is searching for truth would be at best meaningless and at worst opening oneself to the demonic.”

We are called to be as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove (Mt. 10: 16b). There is both danger and potential good in alternative medicine. There is right and wrong, truth and falsehood, Christian freedom and responsibility. Our mission is to be faithful, for this there is no alternative in medicine or in life.

*Dentopuritic Syndrome (DPS) is a fictitious disorder I just made up. If your teeth have begun to itch uncontrollably while reading this article you may actually be suffering from hyper-suggestability syndrome, a far greater problem than DPS, but treatable through daily exercises in discernment.


Basic Questions on Alternative Medicine: What is Good and What is Not edited by Gary P. Stewart (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications; 1998) 64 pp.
Examining Alternative Medicine: An Inside Look at the Benefits and Risks by Paul Reisser, et al (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2001) 320 pp.
Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook by Donal O’Mathuna and Walt Larimore (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 2001) 512 pp.