Monday, July 07, 2008

Faith and Suffering

As part of my grant research I’m looking for ways to frame an analysis of talk about religious practices and health/illness. This morning I read the introduction to Faith in the Great Physician by historian Heather Curtis (reviewed in Books and Culture by Lauren Winner here).

Reading the intro to this book (and Winner’s review of it) brought to my attention the possibility that there might be more than one view of the role of God and faith in illness. In the interviews I analyze (conducted in 2006) we asked the participants if they thought religious practices like prayer or healing services could help prevent or heal an illness like heart disease, diabetes or depression. The answers ranged, but I don’t recall anyone suggesting that illness was a special gift or test and that suffering was in any way spiritual. Neither do I believe that this is a common conception in the contemporary church. However, Curtis describes the culture of the mid-19th century in America where this idea was dominant, especially for women.

Winner summarizes, “Sick people, in particular female invalids, believed that their sickness was God's will, and the most faithful response was humble submission. Women who patiently bore illness that kept them confined to bed for decades were understood as "spiritual virtuosos," who were often blessed by God with special visions that would sustain them through their trials. Their very bodies, passively propped up on pillows, were tokens of faith in the sufficiency of God's grace.”

Perhaps it is my 21st century sensibility that finds this perspective troublesome, and clearly tied up in sexist understandings of female virtue. I wouldn’t suggest we go back to this view, especially in light of the abilities of modern medicine to relieve suffering. However, the very availability of another possibility leads us to evaluate the problems of the current religious attitude toward illness.

Curtis writes at the end of her introduction, “divine healing had a dark side too: in addition to enabling individuals to overcome debilitating diseases, faith cure suggested that sick persons were somehow responsible for their condition and therefore suspect. Rather than risk God’s reputation or their own, many chose to suffer their pain silently or hide it all together.”

This reaction – that those who aren’t healed might not have enough faith – seems especially prominent in discussion of mental illness like depression. In Jane Kenyon’s poem cycle about depression, “Having it Out With Melancholy,” the most haunting poem is titled “suggestion from a friend” and simply says “You wouldn’t be so depressed/ if you really believed in God.” This attitude is clearly the danger that our Christian culture struggles with when we over-emphasize divine healing.

Knowing that the cultural attitude toward faith and suffering changed so dramatically in the 19th century, though, gives us hope for the future. Perhaps another view of the relationship between our faith and our bodies and the problems of our bodies is possible. Perhaps we can develop a way to think about the body, mental illness, and God’s power to heal that avoids punishing those who already suffer, but still looks for healing.


Paul said...

I normally peruse your "other" blog :-), but just happened to wander over here today.

I was wondering if any of the interviews you were analyzing were from devout Catholics?

"The answers ranged, but I don’t recall anyone suggesting that illness was a special gift or test and that suffering was in any way spiritual."

Catholics believe that suffering is (or at least can be) very spiritual. Our suffering is (or can be) a participation in the suffering of Christ on the cross. That explanation is quite simplified, but I don't have the brain power to write more at the moment.

Many examples exist of this kind of thinking in the Catholic Church, just look at those men and women that have been declared saints. St. Francis of Assissi is a great example.

Anyway, this is just a thought floating around my head early this morning.

bethany said...

Good question, Paul. We didn't ask people for their religious affiliation, so I don't know about my sample. I wouldn't be surprised if a few were since we included 25% hispanic americans, but none of the text brought that up.
Another thing I learned, though, is that a church's theology and what a person says who belongs to that church can be quite disparate. I'm aware of that strain in the catholic tradition (check out The Passion, for example). But I wonder if it's something that gets repeated among lay people. Come to think of it, you'd have to be pretty convicted of that particular idea for it to come up in our question, which specifically asked about healing. So maybe it's a bad generalization.

Paul said...

"Another thing I learned, though, is that a church's theology and what a person says who belongs to that church can be quite disparate."

That certainly is true.

"But I wonder if it's something that gets repeated among lay people."

I think that it does. Anecdotal evidence being that I am a lay person. However Christianity in general in this country at this point in time seems to be suffering from a lack of conviction among those that claim to be followers, regardless of denomination. I could probably ask all the members of my own parish (almost 3000) their views on suffering and only turn up a handful that correctly express our church's theology.

Anonymous said...

Although not entirely related to illness, the concept of suffering/god's will is one that is not consistent within the catholic institution. Similar to the discrepancy between what followers believe, and what is actual liturgy; there is a disconnect in communicating the effect of suffering, amongst the clergy from one region of the world to another. I believe it is wise to have differing views, although there should be consistency in the final message if there is to be unified church. In my view this is a strong contributor in the ongoing dilution of faith, particularly amongst the youth.
To exemplify the above, I grew up in a struggling nation in South America, where over 95% of the population is Catholic, and where to this day the explanation for poverty and suffering to the poor, is that their condition is in God's hands/his will, and that they will be rewarded in the afterlife. Any encouragement of taking control of one's life, attempting to end suffering, and eradicating poverty, was completely absent from rural communities, and only briefly touched upon in the parishes closer to major cities. As years went by, the message shifted towards the later, however, nowhere near what is communicated in North America/Europe. I realize that the Catholic Institution has an array of believers to convey to, and that longevity has always been in their best interest, however, some of the traces from the colonial era are clearly evident, and that does not bode well with the youth groups who have significant access to information.
These are just a few thoughts that I am sure could boast discussion if there is interest. I just happened amongst the blog, from privatjokr's member list. My sign on there is Dune2Polo, and am a fellow Novan. Good luck with your further studies.

Boo's mom said...

I am a Christian who suffers from a real, diagnosed mental illness. There have been times when I was absolutely certain that God was going to heal me so I quit taking my medicine (is there anybody out there who knows what I have gone through?). I have been lead to thinking by one church I used to attend that it is a good thing to throw away the medicine and "trust God". Anyway, through the years, I now know, after completely ruining my life several times that I need the medicine in order to be a Christian as well as to survive. There are other denominations, however, that belive that a Christian is supposed to suffer. I am a Baptist and everyone in my church believes this--in the 21st century. I have been told that there is no excuse for sin--even though it is documented what happens to those who don't take their medicines, i.e., sexual promiscuity, poor decisions with finances, feeling "powerful", etc. The problem that I have is that my past "sins" are constantly in the forefront of my mind. Also, I struggle with trying to do what the Bible says yet wanting more out of life than poverty. How about working (I've been a secretary, administrative assistant, etc. in the past before and since I've been diagnosed) for a living. Why do I feel that everything I do must have to have a spiritual component somewhere? Also, Scripture comes to my mind constantly, and I mean constantly, to the point that I can't even have a thought of my own. Really need someone out there to talk who has experienced these things, and who wants to serve
Christ but wants a life of there own, too.

bethany said...

boo's: I am sympathetic to your search for help and companionship, but I do not have an expertise in mental illness and do not feel equipped to help you. I don't think you will find what you need here.

Shannon Lewis said...

I'm wondering if you've ever read "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God"? That'll make you think, fo sho.