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
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.