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Faith And Its Therapeutic Power

( Originally Published 1908 )



THERE is perhaps no subject connected with religion about which there is so much confusion of thought as the question of faith. This confusion arises from a variety of causes. The word is used so vaguely that the mind loses itself in the attempt to grasp its real significance. Sometimes faith is confounded with credulity or superstition and made to mean belief without any evidence why we should believe or even belief against all accessible evidence, as in the famous definition of the little boy that "faith is believing a thing when we know it is not true." Again, misapprehension sometimes springs from failure to distinguish between faith as a principle of our nature, which in the religious sphere brings us into contact with spiritual reality, and faith as a body of beliefs formulated in a more or less elaborate creed and accepted by Christian people. As these beliefs are ex-pressed differently in different parts of the Church, it comes about that the Roman Catholic regards his Protestant brother as a man without faith. Once more, the popular mind is bewildered on this subject because faith as a primary instinct of the soul is not open to scientific definition like a fact in the physical world. It is too subtle, too deeply interwoven with the roots of the spiritual life to offer itself to any intellectual analysis. To the question, What is Faith? only a very general answer can be given, such as that of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen." That is, faith makes the invisible world real to us; convinces us that the things of the spirit are not fancies but ultimate realities.

Let us at the outset rid our minds of a very prevalent idea. We often hear men say, "Faith belongs to religion; knowledge is the mark of science; the weakness of religion is its uncertainty; the strength of science is its firm standing on the bed-rock of observation and experiment." Yet as Professor Royce has abundantly shown, the whole structure of science rests upon a body of great faiths, of beliefs which must be trusted but cannot be proved. For example, there is one great belief to which the scientist is passionately attached: the belief, that is to say, that nature is intelligible, that in spite of all appearances to the contrary, nature can be understood, is indeed the embodiment of thought. Such a faith which lies behind all the great scientific advances and discoveries of the modern world must be first accepted and relied on, and in proportion as it is accepted and relied on it evinces its genuineness. If you still insist that the scientific man should prove to you the uniformity of nature or that there is a causal connection between events, he will simply turn upon you with the threat, "If you cannot accept this faith of mine, it is because the spirit of science is not in you." It is therefore no reproach to religion to say that it is based on faith, for if this is a weakness, it is one that it shares with science. But not science only. Our ordinary life is grounded in faith. The greatest rationalist among us who loves to think of himself as viewing all things in the dry light of reason and of being governed by pure logic is in reality under the control of facts and forces which he himself has never tested. When he is overtaken with some sickness, he speedily forgets his rationalism, calls in the doctor and swallows his medicine in faith, and as we now know, the greater his faith, the more potent the medicine. Or again, in some crisis of his fortunes, he commits himself to the guidance of a friend. Doubtless he has a certain knowledge of his friend's character which leads him to an attitude of trust, but still in the last analysis the reason for this trust is that he divines by intuition certain qualities in his friend that are not upon the surface and that do not lend themselves to any logical analysis and argument. He is able to do this in virtue of kindred sympathies in his own nature. If he did not believe in his friend until the friend gave him formal proofs of his trustworthiness, he would be forced to go friendless through life.

Now faith is the same, whether we exercise it in our fellowmen or in God. The difference does not lie in the quality of the faith but in the object to which the faith is directed. Religious faith is simply that trust which the scientist puts in nature and its sequences, which all normally constituted men put in their friends only now it is extended to the sphere of the unseen where it becomes trust in the goodness of God, in the Divine Love as the law of creation. just as the scientist believes in the perfect order of nature in spite of experiences to the contrary, or just as the ordinary man believes in his friend against superficial contradictions, so the religious man believes in the goodness of God and in the victory of this goodness in spite of all that seems to tell against it.

Now among the things which seem to tell against faith in the infinite goodness of the Power which this universe discloses are the facts of pain and disease. Ever since man has arisen to self-conscious thought, these phenomena have troubled him, have infected his spirit with doubt, have created the spiritual turmoil out of which have sprung the great theodicies of the world. We may take it that an ultimate solution of the problem of pain is not yet possible. Must faith then believe blindly, that is, irrationally; or can we point to any fact as throwing light upon the Divine attitude toward pain and disease, any fact on which faith can find a firm standing ground from which with untroubled eye it can view the whole problem? We have referred more than once to the so-called healing power of nature. What does this mean? From the standpoint of the physiology of to-day it means that there is a tendency in the tissue itself towards health and normality. This is one of the accepted commonplaces of pathological investigation. But if the order of nature is the expression of the Divine Will it follows that God wills health, that He means his creatures to be healthy, and that He is opposed to pain, dis-ease, abnormality of every kind, just as He is opposed to sin and vice. We now know that in spite of all that can be urged to the contrary, God is on the side of order, of health, mental and physical. Doubtless in the present stage of things there are limitations to the full realization of this gracious Will, but if faith is shut up to the dilemma of denying either the omnipotence or the perfect goodness of God, it will instinctively sacrifice His physical to His moral attributes.

If we regard faith simply as a psychical process or mental attitude, history and experience alike testify that it has healing virtue. Not only does it form an indispensable factor in the various healing cults from those of ancient Egypt and Rome to the mesmerism of the eighteenth century and the Christian Science, the spiritualism and the ecclesiastical pilgrimages to this or that sacred shrine in our own time, but also it may be said to enter into all modern scientific psychotherapy. What indeed is psychotherapy at bottom but an elaborate system of suggestion, and what would suggestion avail were it not met with trust on the part of the sufferer? Faith is as necessary in a psychological clinic as at Lourdes or St. Anne de Beaupré. "Confidence," says Feuchtersleben, "acts like a real force." Hence it is not so much the quality as the strength of the faith that is of vital moment so far as the removal of a given disorder is concerned. The relic of a dead superstition, a bone from the supposed skeleton of a mediæval saint, may achieve as great things in the cure of physical disorders as faith in the living God. How is it that faith as a mere mental state has this power? Modern physiology gives the ` answer. It tells us that the processes of the body are controlled by the two great nerve systems, the cerebro-spinal and the sympathetic. We perform our conscious acts through the mechanism of the brain; but the involuntary physical processes, such as the circulation of the blood, the complicated process of turning the food we consume into bone and flesh, in a word, all the vital chemistries of the body, are carried on by means of the sympathetic nerve system. Now it is on this system that the emotions have most direct effect. Fear disorganizes and paralyzes the delicate machinery of the nervous organism, and as a result its various functional activities are disturbed or inhibited. On the other hand, faith stimulates and harmonizes them. Well has it been said that "there is no tonic so uplifting and renewing as joy, which sets into active exercise every constructive power of the body." Now faith is a joyous emotion. Any object which excites it profoundly affects the unconscious bodily functions. It sets the body at ease and thus enables its functions to be carried on calmly and normally. Such is the power even of a blind or credulous faith. But its power is limited to the physiological région. There is a realm within which it is worthless. It cannot reconstruct character or summon anew into exercise ethical forces. A superstitious faith may, and does, work physiological blessing. Ethically and spiritually it can achieve only harm. The more deeply personality is involved in any given ailment, the more necessary is it that faith should have an object worthy of man's ethical dignity and one fitted to draw forth in reverence all his moral and spiritual energies. Such an object can be found alone in the supreme Reality, the Father of Spirits.

There are many who feel with Frederick Denison Maurice that the God thus offered to faith seems too often but a dim shadow thrown. from our own minds with which no vital contact is possible. But in Christ we see unveiled the glory of God. There have been other great teachers, great reformers, great saints, but in Him the Divine has entered in a unique way into humanity and thus offers itself to the love and faith of men. There are aspects and regions of the Divine nature inaccessible to our limited minds, and hence an element of reverent agnosticism must enter into all our thinking about God, but that aspect of His being which can be apprehended by human faculties is revealed in Jesus as it is revealed nowhere else. He interprets God to us. The shadowy, the abstract, become in Him real and concrete. In His suffering, in His teaching, in His compassionate activity as the healer of the souls and bodies of men, in His entire person as the embodiment of all those qualities which are most divine yet most human — in all this we see God's inmost feeling, His attitude toward the world and toward the individual soul. Trust in such a God draws together the scattered forces of the inner life, unifies the dissociations of consciousness created by guilt and remorse, soothes the wild emotions born of sorrow or despair, and touches the whole man to finer issues of peace and power and holiness. By the sweet constraint of such a faith, the jarred and jangled nerves are restored to harmony. The sense of irremediable ill disappears and hope sheds her light once more upon the darkened mind.

Perhaps nowhere in history can we find the power of faith to heal disorders of a semi-moral and semi-nervous character so strikingly illustrated as in the early centuries of the church's existence. The literature of the ante-Nicene period is permeated with a sense of conquest over sickness, disease, and moral ills of every kind. The primitive Church indeed accepted the current philosophy of disease. It was a wide-spread belief not only among Jews and Christians but generally throughout the Graeco-Roman world that demons or malignant spirits caused all sorts of sickness and psychical disorders, indeed in a very real sense ruled the world. This belief was not confined to the uneducated. Even such a man as the highly cultured Celsus, the great critic of Christianity, believed in demoniacal activity. Tertullian (197 A.D.) devotes two chapters of his Apology to a discussion of the nature and influence of these evil powers. "They" (the demons), he says, "inflict on the body diseases and many grievous mishaps and violently visit the man with sudden and extraordinary aberrations. Their wonderful subtlety and tenuity give them access to both parts of man. Spiritual agencies possess great powers. . . . If some hidden blight in the breeze unseasonably hastens forward any fruit or grain in blossom, nips it in the bud, or blasts it in maturity, and if the air infected in some unseen way pours forth its poisonous currents; then by the same obscure contagion the influence of demons and angels brings about the corruption also of the mind with fury and foul madness or with fierce lusts, bringing various errors in their train. . . . They are sorcerers also truly in respect to the cure of diseases, for they first cause the injury and then in order to make it seem like a miracle prescribe remedies which are either new or absolutely opposed to the ordinary methods of treatment, after which they stop causing the injury and are believed to have effected a cure."' Harnack sums up well the prevailing mode of thought when he says, "The whole world and the circumambient atmosphere were filled with devils; not merely idolatry, but every phase and form of life was ruled by them. They sat on thrones; they hovered around cradles. The earth was literally a hell, though it was and continued to be a creation of God." Now the early Church believed that Jesus had committed to her weapons wherewith to attack and rout these evil forces and to rescue souls from their grasp. This was no small part of the secret of the rapid growth of the Christian communities. The great masses of the ancient world lay sunken in superstition, held fast by the fanaticism of an unbalanced imagination. In this profound darkness the Church was the one bright spot. "No flight of imagination," says Harnack, "can form any idea of what would have come over the ancient world or the Roman Empire during the third century had it not been for the Church." 2 Gibbon, in his famous fifteenth chapter, mentions as the third cause of the spread of Christianity, "the miraculous powers of the primitive Church," among which he names the expulsion of demons, but he dismisses the whole matter with a scoff as the product of superstition. Wider knowledge now shows that the historian's skepticism was quite unjustified. There is abundant testimony that one of the most important factors in the early propaganda of the Christian faith was an especial power which Christians seemed to have over various psychical disturbances. If this healing was a mere pretense and meant nothing, it is hard to see how it could have induced opponents to embrace the new religion. Indeed so wide-spread was this healing power of the Christians that the third century witnessed the rise of a special order of men within the Church whose function it was to cast out demons or, as we would now say, to cure nervous disorders. The Apologists again and again refer to this fact as one not open to doubt. Justin Martyr (138—150 A.D.), writing to the Roman emperor of his day, gives the very formula which the exorcist used. He says: "Many of our Christian people have healed a large number of demoniacs throughout the whole world and also in your own city, exercising them in the name of Jesus Christ who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Yet all other exorcists, magicians, and dealers in drugs failed to heal such people. " Irenæus, writing about the year 180 A.D., says: "Those who are the true disciples of Jesus exercise in His name a healing ministry according to the gift which each has received from Him. Some surely drive out demons, so that it frequently happens that those thus purged from demons also believe and become members of the ,Church." Tertullian challenges his opponents boldly with an appeal to their own experience. "All this dominion of ours and power over them (the demons) derives its force from the naming of Christ . . . so at our touch and at our breath they depart unwillingly and reluctantly at our command out of the bodies of men, and blush with shame in your presence." And again, "What else would deliver you from those secret enemies who are ruining both your mental and physical powers in every way? I refer to the attacks of the demons whom we expel from you without price or reward."' Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, and other ecclesiastical writers bear similar witness. Even as late as the time of Augustine, we find the belief in the healing power of faith still existent. In his "City of God" he describes various healing wonders of which he was an eye-witness and which were done in the name of Christ. In the course of time, exorcism as a regular function of the Church died out, partly through the abuses to which it gave rise, partly through the secularizing of the Church, with the consequent loss of faith, and partly through the belief that pain, disease, and weakness were the expressions of the Divine Will and were even helpful to the spiritual life. And yet it is significant that throughout later history the appearance of any great religious personality synchronized with an outburst of healing power. Francis of Assisi, Luther, George Fox, and John Wesley were not only great spiritual thinkers, but also by the strength of their faith were able in certain cases to set up a powerful psychical stimulus which resulted in the restoration of health to the sufferers; and wherever there has been a revival of religious life it has been accompanied by a more abundant sense of well-being both in soul and in body.

We are suffering for the Church's neglect at the present time. Outside her borders mental healing cults are springing up and seek in devious enough ways to supply her lack. The majority of these systems have broken with historical Christianity, and all of them regard academic medicine with distrust, if not with positive contempt. Some of them interpret Scripture in a way which excites the scholar's disgust. Others reject the Bible altogether as a religious authority, and ground themselves on a kind of theosophy baptized with the name of Christian. Nevertheless all these cults heal the sick, dissipate various kinds of miseries, afford moral uplift to the depressed and create an atmosphere of faith, hope, and courage in which achievements are wrought that recall the early springtime of Christianity. But had the Church been loyal to her earlier traditions; had she not lost the heroism of faith, these systems would never have been born. They will serve no mean purpose if they succeed in recalling the Church to the primitive practice and to the realization of the unsuspected riches of the Christian Gospel. A good many physicians, even those who admit the value of psychical treatment in nervous disorders, are still disposed to deny that religious ideas can have any therapeutic value. In so far as these men claim to be scientific, they will admit that in such a matter the only test is experiment, and until they have tried to use the power of religion and have failed they cannot set it aside as valueless. On the basis of' our experience, however, we can affirm that religion has a distinct power in certain types of trouble. And it is reasonable to suppose that ft will continue to have this power as long as perverted religious ideas form a prominent factor in the causation of the maladies that fill our asylums. Moreover, if, as we contend, 'religion is an essential element in the normal life of humanity, sound religious ideas must play a considerable rôle in the maintenance of sound mental and nervous health. The Church of to-day has weapons at her disposal which were denied to the Church of the early centuries. In the first place, there are the resources of modern science, and more especially of the science of psychological medicine. We know more about the nature of psychical disorder than did ancient men. In the second place, we have a new sense of the unity of body and spirit and we are no longer hindered and depressed by the somber imagination that peoples the world with demons. We know that God has not committed the humanity He has made to torture and despair. Finally, the history of Christianity fills us with boundless hope. Again and again it has been threatened with extinction and again and again it has burst forth into new activity and revealed unsuspected resources. It looks as if in answer to the materialism of the age, faith, especially faith in God as He has revealed Himself in Christ, should once more prove its power to remove mountains, to lift the burden of despair, to cure the distempered souls of men.



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