The holes in holistic

The truth about medicine may be the truth about truth

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

Now here's a risky topic, for sure. I can already see the avalanche of e-mails and angry letters from those of you who are sure I don't know what I'm talking about. The subject is alternative medicine. Included is everything from diet to nutrition to herbal medicine to acupuncture to chiropractic treatment. The list by itself is bewildering; if you're nothing but a pragmatist, looking simply for what works and what doesn't, the issues are hard enough. But if you add to that debate the issue of biblical truth, and dare to ask what God thinks about all this, things get sticky indeed. For make no mistake about it: Most expressions of "alternative" medicine have a strong "religious" streak to them. Mysticism, New Age thinking, and explicit expressions of Far Eastern weirdness permeate the practice. Even in its simplest and apparently harmless modes-where "holistic" perspectives are emphasized-the question must be asked: What's the unifying force combining the parts into the whole? That's why I'm grateful for a new book from InterVarsity Press, Examining Alternative Medicine: An Inside Look at the Benefits & Risks. The authors (a medical doctor, a doctor of osteopathy, and a writer) do with their assignment what we at WORLD try to do each week with our journalistic task. They have a point of view-but they exhibit fairness while pursuing it. Long before picking up this excellent book, I had felt alarm on two fronts: First, the manner in which tens of thousands of thinking people have begun pursuing treatments for their ills that typically offer little more than wishful thinking, and often are totally phony. And second, the manner in which some of the least desirable distinctives of alternative medicine have begun infecting the mainstream. It's not hard to list reasons alternative medicine has prospered, even among educated people:

  • Traditional medicine has become too much of an assembly line, distancing doctors and nurses from their patients.
  • Traditional medicine has more and more become a technical matter, tending to deny a sense of the person as a whole being.
  • For all its prowess, traditional medicine has seemed increasingly to promise more than it can deliver.
  • Traditional medicine consumes an increasingly large part of our incomes.
  • Traditional medicine appears to be solely in the hands of the experts, with little role for us lay people to play. Such assertions aren't all necessarily true. And it isn't altogether the fault of practitioners of traditional medicine that such assertions are perceived to be true. Yet the net result has been that bigger and bigger numbers of sick people have flocked to strangely new (or strangely ancient) treatments.

In the process, according to the authors of this book, many "committed Christians who would contend fervently over the interpretation of a grammatical detail in a passage of Scripture, were willing to lay critical thinking aside when dealing with unorthodox healing methods. Does it work? and more specifically, Does it make me feel better? were often far more important considerations than Does it make any sense? or Is there any reasonable proof? or What worldview is this healing system based upon? or Does this practice conflict with my faith?" In an early chapter, authors Paul Reisser, Dale Mabe, and Robert Velarde build a helpful four-level spectrum over which readers might spread various alternative practices and approaches. First, they say, come the "reality-based" practices-some of which make very good sense. Second, there are the "leap of logic" practices, which ask you at least partially to suspend your common sense. Third, you'll find therapies that insist that "everything you know is wrong"; such practitioners will ask you to start over with virtually all your assumptions. Finally, you reach those whose practice involves the supernatural-but almost never the God of the Bible. That outline helps spell out the core problem with so much alternative medicine. Whatever the abuses of traditional medicine-and they too are openly acknowledged in this book-most traditionalists still hold (at least in theory) to a concept of absolute truth. Meanwhile, it is a trademark of a great majority of alternative practitioners to reject such a concept. Co-author Mabe, who was himself for a time deeply involved in alternative techniques, writes: "I began to understand why so many people who begin with a quest for alternative health approaches gradually become involved in a New Age worldview. The removal of the idea of discernible objective truth in the physical world (which also downgrades the importance of valid studies and collecting relevant data) allows for any easy entry into spiritual relativism and syncretism." This book's analysis should help Christians everywhere sort out a troubling trend in American health care. The approach is trustworthy and illuminating.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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