Will tomorrow’s medical textbooks teach spirituality?

© Glowimages - model for illustrative purposes only
© Glowimages – model for illustrative purposes only

Medical textbooks have their limits according to a top doctor.

For while medicine is a science, Dr Clare Gerada learned from her GP father it was also an art, demanding skills that can’t be gleaned from just reading.

Interviewed recently on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, the outgoing Chair of the Council of the Royal College of GPs insisted: ‘Textbooks help you – of course it’s a science – we follow rules.

‘But actually nothing prepares you for the consultation with the patient in front of you – dealing with their psychological, their physical, their social and increasingly their spiritual needs.’

The physical, mental and social needs of the patients have long been acknowledged. Yet why should patients increasingly be bringing their spiritual needs to the doctor’s surgery?

Perhaps a large survey of adults by think tank Theos is a pointer. ‘The Spirit of Things Unseen’ found three quarters of adults – including three fifths of those describing themselves as non-religious – believe ‘there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or other means’.

Overall, the results indicated that ‘a spiritual current’ runs through our nation as powerfully as ever, if not more so. Commenting on the research, Theos Director Elizabeth Oldfield said of belief in Britain today: ‘Rather than becoming more secularist or more material it is becoming more plural.’

She was speaking on a panel discussing the research results at the launch of an intriguing new podcast series called things unseen, designed to appeal to ‘people of faith and those who feel that there’s more to life than meets the eye’.

The panel was generally unfazed by the trend towards an ‘alternative, more free-flowing spirituality’ – a phrase the BBC’s Jane Little, facilitating, used to summarise the survey’s findings.

But one result did surprise most of them – faith in miracles ‘was not just the preserve of the elderly’, as Oldfield put it. In fact, the reverse was true. Adults under 44 years of age were 60% more likely to believe in occurrences credited to God, to a higher power or simply to ‘unusual events we cannot yet explain through science’. Indeed, a sixth of the interviewees had even experienced such ‘miracles’, or knew someone who had.

Had some of those ‘miracles’ been the result of prayer? Perhaps. While the most common view of prayer’s benefit was simply that ‘it makes you feel more at peace’, just under two fifths of those interviewed also said it ‘could heal people’. That piqued my interest. Since my mid-20s I’ve frequently experienced marked improvement in my physical and mental wellbeing as prayer calmed my thought and kick-started my willingness to ‘love my neighbor as myself’.

Was that what happened to some of the hundreds claiming experience of a ‘miracle? The survey didn’t ask. Nor was it in its remit to probe the key question of what prayer actually meant to each respondent. But it did unearth the fact that over half of those surveyed attributed a practical impact to ‘spiritual forces’.

The temptation to attach the word ‘miracle’ to such occurrences is understandable, yet I would concur with the 42% describing them merely as ‘unusual events we cannot yet explain through science’.

Things are only ‘miracles’ until curiosity and experience enables them to be understood.

A favourite explanation of how prayer can heal, for instance, is written by Christian thinker and author Mary Baker Eddy: “Consciousness constructs a better body when faith in matter has been conquered” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures). If this is the case, then perhaps ‘prayer’, ‘healing’ and ‘miracles’ could in time be seen less as relics of the past and more as key components of an increasingly spiritual medicine of the future – that is, the mental means, the mental effect and the practical outcome of thought shifting from a matter-based view of life to a deeper awareness of an underlying divine reality.

This might not be as big a leap as it at first seems, because when the Theos survey asked if humans are ‘purely material beings’ only 13% of respondents replied ‘yes’. The vast majority of people seem comfortable with the idea that ‘there is more to life than meets the eye’ and are convinced this ‘something more’ is spiritual – even if there’s a broad array of views as to what that means.

So where is all this leading? Certainly the spiritual aspect of our identities is increasingly being addressed by doctors and nurses, and is already the focus of at least one major textbook. (The Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare, by Mark R Cobb, Christina M Puchalski, Bruce Rumbold).

With studies increasingly showing how thought can have a pivotal impact on health, perhaps one day a doctor’s consultation will not only respond to a patient’s spirituality, but will enlist it as the key catalyst in their healing.

This was first posted on Huffington Post UK blog as ‘Prayer, Healing and Miracles – Relic of the Past or Medicine of the Future?

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