Curing and Healing

04/03/2015 12:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015


"It is strange that healing is absent from medical discourse today. Cure, resolution, recovery, and rehabilitation retain semantic currency; you can find these words throughout the medical textbooks and professional health literature."

But, continues Philip Alcabes, "healing, with its resonance of renewal, has been banished to the precincts of so-called alternative medicine," shelved, shall we note, along with religion?

Those will be read as fighting words by many, or inaccurate generalizations by others. For whatever limits they possess, these provocations by Alcabes, professor of public health at Adelphi University, zero-in directly on an area of increasing notice, debate, threat, and promise.

Dr. Alcabes follows by asking, "Is healing important? Is it too New Agey or too fuzzy or too old-fashioned for today's medical culture?"

He finds it appearing in treatises on "complementary medicine, energy medicine, integrative medicine, holistic medicine, Islamic medicine, African medicine, music as medicine, and significantly, faith [emphasis mine.]... How to account for this curious void? Has healing, the most central aspect of care for the ill, been banished from doctoring today?"

To further his argument, the author says that today's "health care facilities" are really "temples of diagnosis."

But Alcabes, after doing his own diagnosing of the problem he posed, turns positive. "Already there are signs of... rediscovery, a heartening movement for narrative medicine, encouraging doctors to undertake active listening and recognize that the patient's storytelling might provide excellent clues to diagnosis and effective therapy."

He cites several other signs of recovery and rediscovery in The American Scholar (Spring, 2015), the popular magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, but we cannot detail them all here.

Instead, back to Alcabes' question, "Is healing important?" which we might extend to ask: is it important to deal with this in a column on religion and American public life? Usually our rubric prompts readers and us to expect religion-making-news, especially in conflict over doctrine, institutions, civic life and, here, medical problems and debates.

Yet The American Scholar in this and other instances alerts us to examine where religion, by whatever definition, is most at home and active. Thesis: religion is at home and active when it comes close to "healing" or "soul" as experienced in religious congregations, spiritual circles, and care.

Why bring up this "healing" side right now? Such a notice is in place in a week holy to Christians and Jews and many "spiritual fellow-travelers."

And I was further awakened as I did research for a five-week probe in which I participated at Fourth Presbyterian Church across the street from where I live. I heard and overheard and inquired enough to note that professionals and "everybody else" are more and more alert to the healing dimensions.

This being Holy Week where I come from and go to, I should confess.

My research for Fourth Presbyterian Church led me back to two books produced by 21 + 15 scholars whom I corralled as co-coordinating editor and turned over to three active editors. I presume the books are out of print, so this is not a tardy sales pitch for stock from 1989 and 1997.

Now, the sin to which I plead guilty.

I helped select the categories used in the following titles and sub-titles: Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions and, oh-oh(!): Healing and Restoring: Health and Medicine in the World's Religious Traditions (Eastern, African, Native American and more).

Were we editors so defined by the still and always valuable "diagnostic-ruled model" that we overlooked the "healing" model that rose up in, and dominated wherever East/West/North/South religious specialties contributed?

Forgive us.


Alcabes, Philip. "Failure to Heal." American Scholar, March 4, 2015.

Numbers, Ronald L. and Darrel W. Amundsen, eds. Foreword by Martin E. Marty. Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press: 1997.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Healing and Restoring: Health and Medicine in the World's Religious Traditions. New York: Macmillan Pub. Co.: 1989.

Photo: doctor at a hospital performing an operation, India; Credit: John Isaac / World Bank creative commons.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at