Religion, Medicine, and Miracles
Until recently, modern physicians rarely were able to dignify the role of spirituality in health care by making it part of scientific study. Pastoral care may have always been welcome and respected, but it lay outside the realm of what was considered scientific. With the advent of randomized controlled trials, some investigators have brought the claims of spiritualists to the scrutiny of science. This rapprochement of medicine and religion reminds us that the two realms may depart from radically different premises, but they have many similarities in focus, conception, and practice. Both medicine and religion are ancient semiotic endeavors. They seek to detect (diagnose?) the “reality” of metaphysical entities behind individual suffering: disease, sin, health, redemption, miracle, and holiness. The objects of this medical and religious identification are not immutable, three-dimensional things, waiting to be unearthed like potsherds in an archeological dig. They are ideas formulated through science and/or theology to explain suffering and to console misery. As a result, diseases, sins, health, redemption, healing, and miracles are contingent on time and place. They change more than do human suffering and the responses to it. The illness experiences of individuals are co-opted by the epistemic frameworks of medicine and religion to bolster and advance their projects. But sickness, healing behaviors, and death are part of a longue durée of cultural pluralism. In our time, the greatest impetus for the continued work of the medical saints is the positivistic posture of medicine itself.
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