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Religion And Medicine - Introduction

( Originally Published 1908 )



THE object of this book is to describe in plain terms the work in behalf of nervous sufferers which has been undertaken in Emmanuel Church, Boston. So much has been written on the subject of our movement, in many instances by persons slightly acquainted with it, that we feel it due to the public and to ourselves to state what we are doing and to discuss the religious and scientific principles on which we are building. If a temporary digression may be pardoned, our Class for the Treatment of Nervous Disorders is not the first effort we have made for the relief of the sick. Nearly three years ago the Emmanuel Church Tuberculosis Class began its beneficent mission under the medical direction of Dr. Joseph H. Pratt. The question we attempted to answer in founding this class was, can the poorest consumptives be cured in the slums of a great city without removing them from their homes? The treatment consisted of the approved modem method of combating consumption, plus discipline, friendship, encouragement, and hope, in short, a combination of physical and moral elements, and we are satisfied that the personality of Dr. Pratt is largely responsible for the fact that while our work has been carried on under the most unfavorable environment, our records will bear comparison with those of the best sanatoria.

The success of our Tuberculosis Class, which is now generally recognized and which has led to the formation of many similar classes, convinced us that the Church has an important mission to discharge to the sick, and that the physician and the clergyman can work together to the benefit of the community. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1906 we determined to begin a similar work among the nervously and morally diseased. As a preliminary step we consulted several of the leading neurologists of New England to ascertain, first, whether such a project, undertaken with proper safeguards, would meet with their approval, and secondly, whether they would be willing to co-operate with us in it. A favorable response being given t9 these questions, our work began on a very stormy evening in November, when Dr. James J. Putnam presided at the preliminary meeting and gave the first address. Thus from the beginning our work has been closely associated with very able physicians and we have done nothing without their co-operation and advice. Had this assistance been withheld, we should not have proceeded further.

As we are attempting to establish no new dogma, and as our motives are entirely disinterested, our single desire is to give each patient the best opportunity of life and health which our means allow. We believe in the power of the mind over the body, and we believe also in medicine, in good habits, and in a wholesome, well-regulated life. In the treatment of functional nervous disorders we make free use of moral and psychical agencies, but we do not believe in overtaxing these valuable aids by expecting the mind to attain results which can be effected more easily through physical instrumentalities. Accordingly we have gladly availed ourselves of the services of the skilled medical and surgical specialists who have offered to co-operate with us, and we believe that our freedom in this respect and the combination of good psychical and physical methods have had much to do with our success. If a bad headache is caused by eye-strain, or a generally enfeebled condition is obviously the result of a digestive disturbance, a pair of glasses or a belt is frequently far more effective than suggestion. Most religious workers in this field have made the mistake of supposing that God can cure in only one way and that the employment of physical means indicates a lack of faith. This is absurd. God cures by many means. He uses the sunlight, healing and nourishing substances, water and air. The knitting of a broken bone, or the furrowing out of new blood courses in a diseased limb, is just as truly His work as the restoration of a wounded spirit. There is no peculiar piety involved in the use of suggestion. We have seen the consumptive nursed back to life, by rest, fresh air, abundant food and kindness, and we have seen more spectacular recovery from other diseases through confident expectation and the spoken word, but we have never felt that the one was necessarily more the act of God than the other. The fact remains that consumption can be cured in no other way, and that those who take a different view of the subject do not cure consumptives; they kill them by robbing them of their last chance of life; the same is true of other diseases.

For this reason we have confined our practice to that large group of maladies which are known today as functional nervous disorders. Although a sound psychical and moral method is a valuable adjunct in every branch of medicine, yet viewed as an independent remedial agent the legitimate sphere of psychotherapy is strictly limited. It is in the field of the functional neuroses that all its real victories have been won. Here again our conception of our mission differs decidedly from that of our predecessors. In answer to their taunt: "If you believe in God's power to cure disease, how dare you place any limit to that power?" we are content to reply: "We believe God has power to cure all disease, but we do not believe God cures all disease by the same means. At all events an authentic instance of recovery from organic disease through psychical means is what we are waiting for. While we. do not believe that any man knows all that is to be known on this subject, or that we are in a position to affirm dogmatically what the mind can or cannot accomplish, yet we are surely safe in accepting as to this the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion, and in confining our practice to a field in which it is known to be efficacious. By so doing we avoid the one valid objection which has ever been urged against psychotherapeutics, namely, its employment in diseases which obviously require physical interference, with the result that many patients have died through sheer neglect.

Apart from this, it is in the domain of functional nervous disorders that such service as we are able to render is most needed, not merely because this branch of medicine is least developed in America and adequate treatment is difficult to obtain, especially by the poor, but because disorders of this nature are peculiarly associated with the moral life. An attack of typhoid fever may spring from no moral cause and it may have no perceptible influence upon character, but neurasthenia, hysteria, psychasthenia, hypochondria, alcoholism, etc., are affections of the personality. They spring from moral causes and they produce moral effects. In this domain the beneficent action of drugs and medicines is extremely limited, and the personality of the physician is everything. Other agencies such as electricity, baths, etc., probably owe much of their value to their suggestional effect, and so long as the training of our physicians is strictly material, such patients will continue to be their despair, for the reason that moral maladies require moral treatment.

Another important characteristic of our work is the pains taken in the diagnosis of disease and in the preservation of records, without which no treatment can be regarded as scientific or even safe. In nervous disorders this is the more necessary because so-called nervous affections are not infrequently indications or precursors of serious organic disease, failure to discover which is not merely loss of time and effort, it is frequently a gross wrong to the patient, and the exposure of oneself to merited criticism and contempt. We believe with Dr. Barker that the modem refinements of diagnosis should be exhausted in the study of all doubtful cases before the treat-ment is begun, and thanks to our facility of consultation we leave no stone unturned in this respect, and we admit no patient to the class until we are assured on good medical authority that he or she is likely to be benefited by the treatment. Our system of record is that of the Massachusetts General Hospital supplemented by notes on the moral and spiritual advice given and on the effect of this advice. In this way we are collecting a mass of valuable material which will be used in a subsequent work.

We have dwelt on the scientific side of our work partly with the purpose of recommending it to honorable physicians, with whom we are always ready to co-operate, and partly to differentiate it as sharply as possible from cults and methods which we regard as unsound and irrational. The Christian character of our undertaking is to our mind guaranteed chiefly by the fact that it is absolutely disinterested. Our single desire is to help those it is given us to help. Our class is supported by the voluntary offerings received at its meetings, but that is all. We neither ask nor accept any reward for our services. As to the propriety of the Church engaging in such work, we venture to say that the time is come when the Church must enter more deeply into the personal lives of the people and make a freer use of the means modern science and the Gospel of Christ place at her disposal if she is to continue even to hold her own. It is evident that people to-day desire spiritual help and sustenance which they are not receiving, but which the Church as the representative of Christ is able to give them. If the Church, closing her eyes to the example of her Lord and deaf to His commands, with-holds from the people the gifts committed to her by Jesus, she must expect to find herself forsaken for strange cults which with all their absurdities aim at supplying present strength for present needs. The teachings of modern psychology and physiology as to the essential unity of human nature and the mutual relations of mind and body have sunk so deep into the popular conscience that the Church can no longer address men as disembodied spirits, and no scheme of salvation causes the heart to beat with hope which does not include the whole man and which does not begin now. What will be the outcome of this movement no man can say. We feel that we have done something in attempting to separate truth from error and in applying that truth with good result to the lives of several thousand persons. What we have done, other men and other churches can do as well or better, and it is with the earnest hope that other qualified persons may be induced to help us and to relieve us of the pressure of patients from distant cities that we issue this tentative and imperfect statement.

We are living today in the midst of a great religious movement, which is the more interesting because it is spontaneous. Here and there one catches echoes of it from the pulpits of orthodox churches, but for the most part it has arisen outside the churches. Wherever one goes one finds certain groups of persons talking, reading, thinking of the spiritual life. Much of this talk and of this literature may strike the intelligent critic as bizarre and fantastic, but at all events it is idealistic and optimistic. Thousands of men and women today are seriously seeking for a better life, and many believe that they have found it. They have a feeling that there is more in religion than they have recognized or received in the past. There is a marked tendency to dispense with the tedious processes of criticism and dogma and to return to the Christ of the Gospels and to accept His words in a more literal sense. One marked characteristic of this movement is a renewed belief in prayer; another most curious aspect of it is the confident expectation that religious and spiritual states can affect health and that physical blessings will follow spiritual exercises. In short we see a decided reaction from the scientific materialism and the rational criticism in which we have grown up. If the nineteenth century was materialistic and critical, the first half of the twentieth century promises to be mystical and spiritual. Already we are conscious of a general revolt in the name of the soul. We feel the stirrings of a cold morning breeze, harbinger of a new day. Far-sighted writers like Renan and Paulsen anticipated this change. They realized that there is nothing in the mere exploration of Nature in which the human spirit can find its permanent rest. They knew too well the ever-refining processes of criticism to believe that in themselves they can afford the materials for a popular religion. Accordingly they spoke often of "the religion of the future," and Renan with his usual intuition declared that if it were already in our midst few of us would know it.

This prediction has proved true. The new religious movement has spoken a language so foreign to cultivated ears, its interpretation of the Bible is so false, it is so obviously committed to errors, illusions, and aberrations of every sort, that the intelligent have been disposed to shrug their shoulders in contempt and to ignore it. And yet they have not been able to ignore it altogether. Every once in awhile this curious superstition proves its existence with unexpected power. We see a hard-headed business man totally devoid of religious sentiment undergo a new kind of conversion which leaves him as devout and ardent as a Christian of the first century. An ailing wife or daughter whom no physician has been able to help, through some mysterious means is restored to health and happiness. The victim of an enslaving habit, apparently with very little effort, and without physical means, sufferings, or relapse, finds himself free. We enter a home where the new belief reigns and we find there a peace to which we are strangers.

Let us then remember Darwin's advice and distinguish sharply between facts and the hypotheses which are put forward to account for facts. The humblest attested fact remains, and may cause us to reconstruct our views of the universe, while it is the fate of all dogmas to fail and to be rejected one after another. What if the present movement makes its appearance largely under the form of error and illusion? It is in this form that most new thoughts and all our older sciences have presented themselves in this world. The important thing is that there is life in this thought, it is able to create faith. It is pressing onward by its own power, It is not a doctrine of the schools, it is one of those obscure movements of the human spirit which fashion their own message and means of communication and which grow by their own vitality. And yet sometimes when a seething chemical compound is over the fire the infusion of a few drops of the right fluid at the right time will cause a precipitation, and will clarify the whole mass. It is thus we venture to regard the position we have taken at Emmanuel Church. We have approached this subject with earnest faith, but with faith tempered by sobriety of thought and by respect for science truly so called. Religious movements can be guided only by believers. As Renan says rather too flippantly, they are like women who can be induced to do anything if one takes them the right way, but they yield nothing to force.

The doctrines of Christian Science, for example, have been denounced, ridiculed, exploited times without number, apparently with as much effect as throwing pebbles at the sea checks the rising of the tide. Preachers, physicians, editors of powerful journals, philosophers, humorists, unite in pouring contempt upon this despicable superstition, very much as Juvenal, Tacitus, and Celsus mocked at nascent Christianity, but in spite of them it lives. While most other religious bodies are declining or barely holding their own, it grows by leaps and bounds. All over this country solid and enduring temples are reared by grateful hands and consecrated to the ideal and name of Mrs. Eddy. And this strange phenomenon has occurred in the full light of day, at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century, and these extraordinary doctrines have propagated themselves not in obscure corners of the earth, among an illiterate and a fanatical populace, but in the chief centers of American civilization. Such facts may well cause the philosophical student of religion to reflect. The more absurd the Christian Science dogma is made to appear, the more difficult it becomes to account for men's faith in it. Unless we are prepared to confess ourselves utterly at a loss to explain this infatuation, we must be able to pass beneath the vulgar and repulsive exterior of Christian Science and to find a truth in it, a gift for men, a spiritual power answering to men's needs which the churches at present do not possess. Nor is this difficult to those who know that the metaphysical basis of a religion expressed by its dogmas is the last part to be accepted and embraced by its people. The metaphysical basis of Buddhism is complete negation, a denial of God, of prayer, of the soul, of immortality, in short, of all the elements which elsewhere constitute religion. That did not stand in the way of the adoring multitudes who found new life in the seductive sweetness of Sakyamuni's personality. The metaphysical basis of Christian Science is too crude, too contradictory to be accepted by the normal reason. What of that ? It is not by metaphysical consistency that men live. With all its obscurity we find in the Sacred Book of Christian Science great truths freedom from the fetters of sense and passion, the power of the soul over the body, victory of the mind over its tyrants fear and anger, the presence of God manifested with power; above all, the promise of an immense immediate good as the result of faith. These are the magnets to which the souls of men have sprung as waiting particles of steel. In spite of John Stuart Mill, the most powerful motive of religion will ever be the Practical Motive, and by the Practical Motive we mean believing because it is good and useful to believe, believing what is good and useful to believe.' We are never at a loss to find reasons for what we wish to believe. No one ever yet accepted a form of religious faith which promised to do him nothing but harm. The more good any particular form of religion accomplishes, the more men will believe in it, and the less good any particular church or religious institution does, the less the faith it is able to inspire. Here lies the source of the power of Christian Science. It does unquestionably bestow certain great benefits on believers: it makes men happy, it improves tempers, it frequently weans men from evil habits, it can reduce or remove pain, it cures certain types of disease and it gives courage to endure these which it cannot heal. It concerns itself with the present and its effects are direct, practical, immediate. Therein lies its great superiority to preaching that is vague and impractical and which deals largely with a distant future. If we should promise every worshiper in Emmanuel . Church next Sunday the gift of a ten-dollar gold piece, no matter what the character of the preaching there would be no vacant pews. Why? Because the congregation would be sure of obtaining a coin which passes current here and now some-thing which represents to them an immediate personal good. In precisely the same way, were we to say to certain persons, if you will believe and do thus and so you will receive a marked benefit in five days or five weeks, you will sleep well, you will be free from pain, you will escape from your vices, you will possess a peace which the world cannot take from you, and our prediction in every instance proved true, those persons would have a personal faith in us and in our ministry which were not easily shaken. We have heard many cultivated and intelligent persons discuss Christian Science. They begin by abusing it, but they end by admitting there is something in it, something it is evident which they do not understand.

As a matter of fact we have approached this subject from a totally different point of view. Our movement bears no relation to Christian Science, either by way of protest or of imitation, but it would be what it is had the latter never existed. We have taken our stand fairly and squarely on the religion of Christ as that religion is revealed in the New Testament and as it is interpreted by modem scholarship, and we have combined with this the power of genuine science. This we consider a good foundation the best of all foundations.



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