Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Did Jesus Cure Anybody? (Bruce Epperly)

In today's installment of Bruce Epperly's reflections on a Spirit-centered Progressive theology, he takes up what are to be at least two essays on healing.  Bruce believes that Progressives are missing the boat by ignoring this important aspect of spiritual life.  I myself struggle with what to make of this idea, so I welcome Bruce's reflections.

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Did Jesus Cure Anyone?
Bruce G. Epperly


For a number of years, I have challenged my fellow progressive Christians to recognize the importance of mysticism, spirituality, paranormal normal experiences, and healing for a holistic faith for the future. A recent Pew Center Report notes that 50% of persons who identify themselves as mainline Christians report having experiences of self-transcendence. The fact that every other mainstream or progressive Christian reports an encounter with the Holy suggests that a holistic and spirit-centered progressive theology must take mysticism, spirituality, and healing seriously. Too often, we progressives have separated spirituality from social action and personal faith from social concern. Happily, Marcus Borg and Barbara Brown Taylor have joined Diana Butler Bass, Dorothy Bass, and me in affirming the importance of spiritual practices for energizing and transforming progressive Christianity.


The area of healing and the significance of Jesus’ healing ministry for first century and twenty- first century persons still remains a barely-charted frontier for progressive Christians. For example, the Center for Progressive Christianity’s “eight points” makes no mention of healing or spirituality. The Phoenix Affirmations recognizes in an understated way “the benefits of prayer, worship, recreation, and healthiness in addition to work.” With few exceptions, progressive Christians interested in healing and wholeness must read the works of holistic physicians such as Larry Dossey, Deepak Chopra, Candace Pert, and Herbert Benson to discover the connection between faith, spirituality, and healing.1 Progressive Christians have written little or nothing about complementary medicine, despite the fact that many progressive pastors and laypersons practice, receive, or sponsor in their buildings, holistic modalities such as reiki healing touch, massage therapy, Qi Gong, healing touch, therapeutic touch, Tai Chi, and yoga.2 For many progressives, spirituality is connected with other worldliness and healing is connected with supernaturalism and the bombastic theatrics of televangelists. While there is much truth in these connections, a healthy faith does not live by what it denies about God, wholeness, and mysticism, but by what it can affirm about divine activity, personal transformation, and the relationship of spirituality and healing.

I believe that progressive Christians need to reclaim the healings of Jesus as part of their embrace of today’s growing movements in global and complementary medicine. Healing can be understood as natural, rather than supernatural, and can involve the transformation of energy in the dynamic interdependence of mind-body-spirit rather than the violation of predictable causal relationships.

I suspect many progressive Christians are daunted in their quest to reclaim the healings of Jesus by comments by leading progressives such as John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Crossan denies that Jesus’ ministry involved curing physical ailments. After correctly noting the distinction between healing and curing, and illness and disease, articulated by contemporary medical anthropologists, Crossan notes: “This is the central problem of what Jesus was doing in his healing miracles. Was he curing the disease [leprosy] from an intervention in the physical world, or was he healing the illness through an intervention in the social world?” In response to his question, Crossan boldly asserts: “I assume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease or any other one [emphasis mine], healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization.”(82) Although there is much to commend in Crossan’s understanding of Jesus’ healing ministry as a political and sociological phenomenon, why not take a more holistic – and, dare I say, more progressive – approach to the question and answer “yes” to both healing and curing, social and physical transformation. Jesus’ healing ministry transformed people’s social location, bringing them from marginalization to full humanity, as Crossan rightly asserts, but Jesus’ acts of compassionate care also transformed the whole person in the dynamic interplay of body, mind, and spirit.

Progressive Christianity needs to go beyond “modern” mind-body dualism to a more holistic, relational, and constructive post-modern approach to healing and wholeness. Progressive Christians are challenged to consider the possibility that Jesus was able to achieve what many contemporary holistic and spiritual healers as well as faithful Christians at liturgical healing services regularly experience - the transformation of the whole person through healing touch, anointing with oil, reiki, prayer, or laying on of hands. Isn’t it possible that Jesus tapped into the deeper energies of the world, working within the causal relatedness of life?

In contrast to the modern world view’s separation of mind and body, sacred and secular, person and environment, and spirituality and social transformation, a truly holistic progressive theology affirms the insights of complementary and mind-body medicine and contemporary physics, both of which describe the relationship of mind, body, and spirit as part of one whole, interdependent reality in which spirituality shapes embodiment and embodiment shapes spirituality. In light of this, when Jesus touched persons with leprosy, he may have done several things simultaneously: affirmed their humanity, welcomed them into the reign of God, deepened their spiritual awareness, transferred healing energy (dunamis), and awakened the healing energies resident in their bodies. As fully aligned with God’s vision, Jesus may have experienced a special connection with the divine power that continuously creates the universe and gives life to every cell, variously known as chi, prana, and pneuma.

Crossan rightly challenges magical and supernatural understandings of curing and appropriately recognizes that healing, involving the sense of personal meaning and social connectedness is essential to our well-being. But, perhaps, we need to ponder more appreciatively the unity of healing and curing in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus touched persons with leprosy and reached out to persons with chronic and socially stigmatized diseases; but in the processes of welcoming them to God’s realm, Jesus may also have encountered them in ways that energized God’s healing presence within their lives, transforming cells as well as souls. This is not magic or supernaturalism but a process of awakening people to the omnipresent movements toward abundant life in the quest for justice, in mystical experiences, and in moments of physical transformation. As truly progressive Christians, we don’t need to choose between healing and curing – our hospitality to the marginalized and stigmatized, advocacy for universal and accessible health care, and action for healthy environments can be joined with liturgical healing services, anointing at the bedside, and global and complementary healing practices.


  1. Some progressive-oriented writings on Jesus’ healings include Robert Webber and Tilda Norberg, Stretch Out Your Hand and Bruce Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus and Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice.
  2. Some progressive-oriented writings on complementary medicine include Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus and Flora Litt, Healing from the Heart.


Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. HisTending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.   Persons interested in progressive approaches to healing and wholeness may consult his God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus;  Healing Worship Purpose and Practice; or Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, written with Katherine Gould Epperly. He can be contacted at bepperly@lancasterseminary.edu.

16 comments:

Robert said...

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rev.robertwright@gmail.com
www.christian.com

Keith Watkins said...

Although I make full use of mainstream doctors and dentists, I have long been aware of the fact that there is much more to healing and wholeness than drugs, surgeries, and other standard procedures. I have responded favorably to writers who believe that something really happened when Jesus intervened. I have also responded favorably to the assertion that ordinary Christians today can do more by faith, prayer, and solidarity with the sick than we realize. We should do more, including praying more ardently in private and in public worship. Thanks to Bruce for this series that seeks to offer practical substance to progressive faith.

Mike L. said...

Jesus, the character in the stories, did heal people. That's the important thing! The character did. Now let's ask why the character was written that way.

Bruce,

What might happen if we stopped asking such modernist questions like, "Did it really happen"? What if we moved on to questions about the meaning intended by the authors who created these healing stories? What would motivate people to write them and keep telling them? I think those are better questions. Unfortunately, we are still limited by the modernist desire to read these stories through the lens of historical accounts.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Mike,

I think its fine to ask what the meaning of the stories are, but if we're thinking about their impact now, we need to ask the question does God heal? That is, can we conceive of God acting in our lives in ways that bring healing, which is what Bruce is asking- and which Keith affirmed.

Of course, as you know, I believe that the gospels, while not historical in all of their parts, tell history. But, that's me!

tripp fuller said...

@mike. i get what you are saying i just think it is bad biblical scholarship. the idea that ll these stories were conscious mythological creations by the authors\communities has no solid evidence. an agnostic friend of mine who teaches biblical studies told me once that he thinks this theory is a creation of liberal biblical scholars who want to be able to affirm what the texts 'really meant' when in fact they reject the notion of a personal God, divine action, and Jesus actually being the messiah of God...etc that the NT plainly affirms. i was attracted to this theory at one point but there is just no evidence that this was actually the case. that isn't to say it is all history and there is no intentional telling of truths in non-historical truths but these truths were storyed about risen Christ who was a real person of history and alive in their community (or so they thought). i would rather do my best to say what the texts claim, what the historical communities were claiming, and then feel free to engage and disagree with them. to make the texts examples of proto-liberal theology that rejects the notion of a personal God, divine action, and the particularity of Christ is (in my mind) an act of violence to the text.

Mike L. said...

Bob,

Do you mean to imply that these stories have no impact unless they "really happened"? It sounds like that is what you mean to imply. Why? Are you so sure that isn't the trap of a modern mind biased against myth and favoring history, proof, evidence and certainty over and above the beauty of a story?

If the story is "merely history", then it can't have been created. The author couldn't have had an intention for how he crafted the scene, added intentional twists, arranged the dialog, setup the allegory and foreshadowing, etc. He'd just be telling what happened and the deeper meaning would be gone. A historical reading guts the story of its lasting value. If it "merely happened" then it becomes meaningless for today. It is the story's status as myth that gives it meaning for today. History happened, but a good myth keeps on happening.

The problem with "believing it happened" is that it traps us in modernity, never letting us fully embrace the purpose of the story, which is always to tell us about the authors and their lives. Good art exposes the artist. Flattening these stories out into historical accounts robs the author of their chance to be exposed and understood.

Do you read any other art that way? Plays? Poems? Movies? Paintings? Are they all valueless unless they "really happened"?

I feel like the authors would be screaming at modern Christians, telling us that it was never about the possibility of miracles, but about much larger real social concerns of life and death.

Mike L. said...

Trip,

Very good points, and those are ideas I once held too. Seems we're treading the same ground, but possibly going in opposite directions down the path. Thanks for the dialog.

I don't think you can claim that that the "NT plainly affirms" what you are suggesting (or anything for that matter). It is far from "plain".

Star Wars affirms Luke is the son of Darth Vader, but that doesn't not make it a fact. It's a claim made "IN" the story. All stories are factual "IN" the story. If we accept the NT as factual outside the story, what proof do we have? Do we also accept the claims inside other stories (Greek mythology? Roman Imperial theology? Islam? etc).

You can't just say it is "bad theology". The notion that these stories are mythical (even if some elements like places and even some historical figures) is the most PROBABLE answer. Even if you believe it is factual, it is still most PROBABLE that it is pure fiction or at least a parabolic retelling of communal memories.

History is about determining probability. Wouldn't you agree that the most probable answer is that these are myths? If not, then do you accept the f actuality of other myths on the same grounds? Zeus? Muhammad?

We have thousands and thousands of myths, most based on some historical places, people, and even events. Most all of these stories have the same level of "proof", which is near zero. You can't just pick one set of myths out and claim they are "something else". Just because people keep telling, that them doesn't prove anything (the really bad logic of NT Wright). People still tell the story of Achilles and we even continue to name a part of our body after him. Continuous usage of the myth doesn't turn it into history or prove it was intended to be history.

Here lies the problem of modernity. People are fixated on certainty and proving our stories "really happened", or as Bob implied, they wouldn't have "impact" in modernity. In a postmodern world, we might not need to prove the stories are facts. We might not be so concerned with devaluing our myths. Myth need not be a dirty word.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Mike,

I'm not saying that I take every thing very flatly in the gospels as beyond a doubt fact/history. I do believe that there is strong historical content however. What Tripp is saying is that very few biblical scholars would say that the gospels are purely fiction, or even historical fiction. I don't think the writers of the gospels would be yelling at us saying, you missed the point, none of this really happened, its the story that counts. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan believe that aspects are factual and aspects aren't. I think you're reading me to say very flatly that everything happened exactly as it says. Obviously that's not true -- there are differences in the stories. But, that is different than saying everything is probably fiction. I'm not sure that is what you're saying, but that's what I'm hearing.

David Mc said...

"Myth need not be a dirty word."

Neither does the word "liberal".
My Jesus was a liberal for His sake.

Statistically, prayer is proven to be useless to the sick. Better to tell them you care in person. Pray for yourself in private.

Mike L. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike L. said...

Bob,

Are you implying that in order to have impact today, the stories must have happened? That's the modernist assumption I think we wrestle with today and what I'm trying to question.

I agree that few myths are "purely fiction". The Greek myths are full of real historical places. The Roman Imperial myths are about real live roman emperors. There may have literally been a historical Buddha figure. George Washington really was a little boy with a real father, even if the whole cherry tree story was a nice bit of political campaign rhetoric. I never said Jesus was "purely fiction" and I never meant to imply you said it was "purely fact".

The issue is that only modern people would fixate on claiming the miraculous bits are "possible". I doubt that need existed in the people who created the stories. The gospels don't sell their listeners on the possibility of divine healing or resurrections. They just need to sell them on the idea that those things they already believed in about the universe were happening with Jesus too. They needed to tie his movement to the existing Jewish and Roman myths of a Messiah and son of God.

History isn't exact, but it is about probability not possibility. We can't say anything that is deemed possible is also probable. I guess I am saying the likelihood of a historical Jesus supernaturally curing someone is improbable. But even if you believe it happened, you have to admit it's improbable, right?

Given the thousands of stories about leaders with supernatural powers in human history, can we say it is probable that our story is the one that is historically factual? Do we really think that is the intention of the storytellers?

Bruce Epperly said...

It is always good to see a trail of perspective responses to my post and to one another. "Meaning" is important, I agree, and is certainly at work in every human (and non-human) experience. However, I would argue that Crossan is stuck in "modernity" as a result of his attachment to the enlightenment world view that limits the natural to the obvious and controllable and leaves little room for surprise, adventure, and unexpected (albeit natural) bursts of energy. Progressive Christianithy has too long been the possession of rationalists...and while I am a rationalist myself, I also embrace holism, mysticism, spirit, and wonder....while I suspect none of the stories occurred as written (how could words describe a flow of power and a transformed person - body, mind, and spirit - in just a paragraph), I suspect they point to something more than meaning-making...meaning making is not a phantasm but emerges from experiences.....so, I believe that spirit-centered, post-modern, process-oriented progressivses, can embrace the accounts as revelations of a greater energy in our midst....our future as progressives is claiming "more" rather than "less" for God and ourselves....I have as a healing partner in liturgical services and as a reiki teacher/master been part of "curing" events, so I anticipate that Jesus could have done more than me. I have learned much from Crossan, but I would opt for a spirit-centered progressive Christianity as the way to speak to postmodernity and to emerging Christianity. (At the risk of being accused of trying to sell a book,my "God's Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus" and "Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice" represent a theologically-grounded, medically-friendly affirmation of Jesus' healings and our own today.) Blessing on all who read this.

Austin said...

This debate about the historical nature of Jesus' miracles is interesting. I am reminded of Crossan and Wright's debate on the resurrection in the book "The Resurrection of Jesus." I have learned much from Crossan, but it is clear that he is held captive to a modern/rationalist worldview when he asserts the exclusively metaphorical nature of the resurrection. Crossan is faced with strong historical arguments in favor of both an empty tomb and widespread experiences of a "risen" Christ, and he really does not dismantle them at all. Instead, he says that we should not worry about whether it happened or not, but what it *means*. Unfortunately, the profound meaning Crossan provides IS attached to the historicity of the resurrection. The meaning of the resurrection rises or falls with the historicity of something like an objective "resurrection" (I think Bruce has done a good job of offering a fresh way of thinking about this in his recent blog entry on the resurrection). I don't agree with Wright on everything, but on this point, I think he gets it right. Unless you want to call the apostle Paul a modern rationalist who just doesn't get the beauty of a parabolic story, it seems pretty clear in his writings that he regarded the resurrection as a real historical event. For him, his faith in Jesus was "in vain" if he had not been raised. Paul is *not* writing a narrative when he says this - he is anticipating a real eschaton in light of the "first fruits" of a real resurrection of Jesus. I do not think we can get around this early Christian confession that most actually believed that *something* like the resurrection actually happened on Easter morning and their faith was truly rooted in its objective occurrence.

As for the miracles, it's a similar situation. Marcus Borg admits that Jesus must have been a powerful healer (however we choose to explain this): "His activity must have been remarkable; more healing and exorcism stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition." (Jesus, 163). Bart Ehrman, an agnostic but excellent biblical scholar, says this about the miracles of Jesus "Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles, it's clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them." (Jesus: Apoc. Prophet, 199). Dunn also writes "It is no exaggeration to claim that [Jesus as healer and exorcist] is one of the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts with which we have to deal." (Jesus Rem., 670)

Sources outside the Christian tradition also took the notion that Jesus was a healer quite literally - *not* metaphorically (note that this is before the advent of "modernity"...we are still dealing with premoderns). Josephus reports that Jesus was a doer of "extraordinary deeds" and later Celsus attributes to him "certain magical powers." Later Rabbinic tradition accused Jesus of sorcery (as in Mark 3:22). As James Dunn points out about these sources: "What is interesting in this testimony, hardly partisan on behalf of Christian claims, is that the accounts of Jesus' healing and exorcistic success are nowhere disputed, only the reasons for that success" (Jesus Remembered, 671).

All of this goes to say, I agree with Tripp that we cannot be sure which healings are simple "pure history" (as if there is such a thing), but it is pretty clear from all the evidence that Jesus was believed to *literally* perform miracles. We are free to read these stories as parables if we wish (indeed, they are filled with powerful meaning), but they are to one degree or another rooted in a real belief by the authors of the gospels that Jesus actually performed miracles.

tripp fuller said...

geez Austin. I wish I had quotes on recall or a sweet collection. 'Jesus remembered' is an awesome book.

Austin said...

Thanks Tripp. The Ehrman and Borg quotes are just from a paper I wrote at the end of last semester related to this topic. The Dunn quotes I looked up today - Jesus Remembered is my super slow summer reading project I'm reading off and on. So good though! I definitely have to get it done before we start this Systematic Theology course in the fall (which I hear is gonna have some extra heavy reading!).

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