When I was younger, I had chronic stomach pains. At one point, the pain lasted for a full week without subsiding, seesawing between a sharp or dull pain. After countless X-rays and tests, doctors could only agree on one diagnosis: inconclusive results. The body is an amazing piece of work, functioning with complexity and beauty, but also mystery. These abdominal pains were a mystery. My parents tried everything—flat soda, tea, hot compresses, Pepto-Bismol, prescription medicines, strange medicinal green cocktails—but nothing worked. One day, my parents decided to take me to the home of a traditional Filipino healer, a hilot. I don’t remember much, except that she massaged my stomach with strong smelling, heated oils as she silently prayed, although I wasn’t sure exactly what she was saying. I’d been to her home before when I sprained my ankle and again when I sprained my arm. Both visits seemed to alleviate the pains in my joints, but with my stomach, both modern and alternative medicine seemed to fail me. To my surprise, the pain simply went as mysteriously as it came, although my stomach was never the same after that. However, my experience is an example of the effectiveness of alternative medicine, and modern medicine for that matter. Oprah Winfrey frequently highlights alternative treatments on her popular talk show. People all over the world flock to specific locations, from Mount Shasta, California, to Lourdes, France because of the believed presence of mystical or spiritual energy concentrated in these locations.
As the field of medicine continues to evolve, alternative treatments have increasingly become more integrated with modern medicine. Alternative medicine, also referred to as complementary medicine, is a term used in the Western world to encompass a broad range of medical methods and therapies that are outside the practice of modern medicine. Examples include folk medicine, acupuncture, homeopathic remedies, and shaman healing. The term “alternative medicine” is a misleading one, considering much of medicine has been derived from traditional treatments that withstood the test of time, prior to the advent of modern medicine. In other places, alternative treatments are considered to be the norm, while modern medicine is largely mistrusted. These treatments provide a healthy counterpoint against Western medicine, since neither is the final authority for all ailments. Tempering an over-reliance on drugs and high-tech medicines, alternative treatments emphasize stress reduction and a healthy lifestyle which complement modern medical treatments. At the end of the day, most people view medicine as simply good or bad, not modern or alternative. People subscribe to what works.
Despite the growing acceptance of alternative methods, there is still a stigma of quackery in the minds of many skeptics, one that is not entirely unwarranted. There are some treatments backed only by anecdotal evidence or word-of-mouth confirmations supporting their claims. Rigorous scientific studies have not been done, and some treatments are actually unable to be tested due to the nature of the claims. For example, how could one scientifically test the effectiveness of holy water as a medicinal treatment? Further complicating the situation, many countries that sell herbal remedies have very few regulations. It is possible that the supposed remedies are packaged with missing ingredients, contain added contaminants, or have variations of active ingredients. While many products are advertised to be “all-natural,” this does not necessarily mean that they are beneficial.
Opinions towards alternative medicines within the Christian community can vary greatly. On the one hand, Christian radio stations advertise remedies and nutritional supplements much like secular stations do. “Christian” alternative therapies exist, such as a recipe for manna which claims to protect people from illness, like it protected Israelites in the wilderness. Some proponents of alternative medicine assert that Christ is more like a traditional healer, than a modern medicine man. On the other end of the spectrum, some believe Christianity and alternative medicine to be diametrically opposed to one another. Treatments that either directly involve spiritual and mystical healing, or have origins rooted in them, are viewed with suspicion and caution. To help clear any confusion, several resources about Christianity and alternative medicine have emerged. One example is Dόnal O’Mathúna and Walt Larimore’s book Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook (Zondervan, 2007). The authors, who are also doctors, have collected anecdotal and scientific evidence to break down the claims of various alternative medicines. In addition to taking care of the scientific legwork, they have also analyzed the involvement of mystical properties within different treatments to determine whether they could create tension with the Bible’s teachings. The book covers everything from gingko biloba to Tai Chi to Christian prayer. O’Mathúna and Larimore are not the final authorities, but have put together a comprehensive review of the peaks and valleys of alternative medicine.
As Christians, how do we appropriately explore alternative medicine? It is important to take the necessary effort to investigate the treatments we expose our bodies—and our spirits—to. The Bible makes several warnings against the practices of sorcery and divination, such as in Leviticus 20:6: “I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute himself by following them.” We must evaluate our health care options with an honest heart that is open for discussion. Alternative treatments may be things that we have done for years, things that comfort us and relieve our pain, and have not shown any outward signs of hurting our relationship with God. However, the possibility of involving ourselves in occult practices must also be addressed through sincere investigation, prayer, and discernment. But we also don’t want to be popping modern painkillers without thinking twice, abusing over-the-counter medicines or taking common supplements without the equally important investigation, prayer and discernment of modern medicine. Here we explore alternative medicine more specifically.
To start off, when dealing with alternative medicine practices, here are some questions to ask.
1. What is the history and philosophy behind the treatment?
Look through literature to check on the history of the treatment and whether it is drawn from mystical or occult concepts. This does not necessarily mean it plays a role in the practice of the treatment, but it is good to know the origins for your own understanding. For example, the practice of Ayurvedic medicine developed with a strong influence of Buddhism and mythology.
2. How is the effect of a method or a remedy
There are usually several explanations of why a remedy works. If the explanation is purely based on a magical or mystical model, further discernment of the method or remedy is suggested.
3. What is the scientific evidence in favor of the method?
This is not intended to place all value in scientific validation, but scientifically proven effectiveness can be used to protect consumers, since alternative medicines and therapies are often not regulated by a larger system.
4. Does the method have elements of New Age concepts, practices or rituals?
This is an important question after evaluating the other questions. When getting a massage, is it to relax the muscles, or is it to transfer mystical energy? Is part of the method opening yourself to energy that will heal you? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then it is recommended to approach the treatment with caution.
Many defend their practices, even if there are elements of the occult or mysticism present. Common explanations are that their practices are modified versions of the original, in which they meditate on God; or that it is God who heals, even if the practice does not inherently recognize the actions to be God. These are certainly possibilities, as we cannot put limits on the extension of someone’s relationship with God, nor can we doubt the work of God in the least expected circumstances. But we also must consider whether or not we are trying to justify our actions simply to continue with a treatment we believe to work. Since we cannot judge what God has affirmed to individuals, we must personally seek God’s affirmation and truth, as well as accept his rebuke.
Some popular practices highlighted in Alternative Medicine: A Christian Handbook show you some examples of how Mathúna and Larimore break down their analysis of different alternative medicine practices.
What is it?
A system of physical and mental exercises originating in India.
Proven to help with flexibility and physical fitness, stress reduction, chronic pain, and asthma relief
Some reports of physical and spiritual harm. Yoga terms carry religious meanings, some paying homage to Hindu gods. Many Christians who practice yoga go through the movements, but do not get involved in the spiritual side of the practice.
What is it?
Based on an idea that a “life force energy” flows through people, reiki is a Japanese technique for relaxation and stress reduction that is administered through touch.
Proper studies have not been able to clearly prove purported advantages, and anecdotal evidence is mixed.
Communication with spirits is an integral part of the practice.
What is it?
An ancient Chinese practice of inserting fine needles into specific points on the body, typically for pain relief.
Can be used to treat nausea and vomiting, relieve dental pain, headaches, and chronic back pain.
Verify the therapist has adequate training. There are some that may call on spiritual powers, but these practitioners may be avoided by performing a thorough background check.