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Candy Brown
IU Department of Religious Studies

Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Natural or supernatural?

Traditional barrier between medical and spiritual healing coming down

Feb. 28, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In recent national surveys, more than 80 percent of Americans said they believe that God supernaturally heals people in answer to prayer.

That doesn't mean they shun conventional medical treatment.

"People who need healing are willing to try anything," said Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington. "There's an American penchant to have it all -- both the MRIs and the miracles."

Combining two different world views to achieve this is not a problem for most Americans. As a result, the once-formidable barrier between scientific naturalism and supernaturalism is collapsing, Brown said.

Prayer for spiritual healing is scarcely restricted to "faith healers" who attract large crowds. It has become increasingly common over the past 30 years to find Protestant and Catholic churches hosting healing services and to find lay Christians offering to pray for the people they meet at their neighborhood Wal-mart. Indeed, medical doctors can be found praying for their patients. Increasing numbers of medical schools include courses on patient spirituality. Clinical studies of the effectiveness of intercessory prayer have proliferated.

One indication of the extent of spiritual healing activity is the explosive development of the International Association of Healing Rooms, which is less than 10 years old, Brown said. Its Web site can be found at The IAHR network includes more than 500 healing rooms in nearly every state and more than 20 countries.

Healing rooms are usually rather un-churchlike store-fronts located in office parks, where teams of two or three volunteers pray for the healing of anyone who cares to visit. Healing rooms typically do not charge any fees, and reports of dramatic healings abound, drawing thousands of visitors weekly, often from miles away, in search of divine intervention in their struggles with physical or emotional pain.

"There are so many claims of spiritual healing that they merit closer study," Brown said.

Alongside Christian prayer for divine healing, alternative healing practices rooted in metaphysical spiritualities also abound -- practices such as yoga, reiki, chiropractic and Therapeutic Touch.

"In a 'therapeutic' culture that privileges the fulfillment of individual needs over religious or medical orthodoxy, individuals in need of healing feel substantial freedom to experiment with therapeutic approaches derived from competing philosophical orientations," Brown said. "When pain relief becomes the driving imperative, therapeutic relativism is frequently embraced by people who would strenuously resist charges of theological relativism."

Many individuals seek conventional medical attention, employ one or more alternative therapies and pray for divine healing of the same condition.

Healing practices that reflect evangelical, metaphysical and scientific worldviews often are connected in generally unrecognized ways. Americans in need of pain relief piece together therapeutic resources to meet their practical needs, sometimes without recognizing the theoretical implications of their actions.

"Americans appear unabashedly confident that it is possible to select isolated techniques from diverse belief systems without accepting the theoretical premises that underlie the techniques," Brown said.

In the long run, it may not be as possible as many Americans believe to separate techniques from theories, she pointed out. There may be unforeseen theological, cultural and political implications to unreflective mixing and matching of healing practices derived from naturalistic and multiple supernaturalistic worldviews. In an era in which the political power of evangelical and alternative healing constituencies is of great media interest, the largely unrecognized intersections of these communities with each other and orthodox medicine deserve consideration.

Brown, a historian of American religion and culture, is currently writing a book on spiritual healing practices in America. At stake are fundamental questions such as the meanings of health, illness and healing, and competing medical and religious claims to knowledge, authority and power.