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.
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.
- 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.