Faith and 'physic' linked for millennia

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Gary Ferngren

Recent highly-publicized faith healing cases have ancient roots in Western culture—to cure illness was one of the prime functions of religion going back at least five thousand years.

Though medicine and religion now mostly have parted ways, their long intersection from the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt to our own 21st century world reveals a great deal about Western cultural beliefs and practices.  In his book-in-progress, Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction, Center Research Fellow Gary Ferngren will examine healing within the polytheistic belief systems of the ancient world and the succeeding faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Three thousand years ago in Greece, illness was treated by “empirics” who dealt with symptoms while lacking theoretical understanding of disease. The empirics were followed by shamanistic healers who attributed disease to demons and angry gods, and treated patients through prayer and incantations.

By the fifth century B.C., Greek medicine began to take a systematic approach to disease, naturalistic and theoretical, with a rational basis and ethical standards reflected in Hip-pocratic medical treatises. Even so, Greek medicine continued to include a religious component.

“A complementary relationship between these alternatives permitted Greeks to seek healing from the best available source,” said Ferngren, professor of history in OSU’s School of History, Philosophy and Religion. His most recent book, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity (Johns Hopkins UP: 2009), was supported by a previous Center Fellowship.   

The current book comes at a particularly good time for an exploration of the relationship between medicine and religion, said Ferngren. “A new interest in ‘whole-person health care’ and growing dissatisfaction with traditional medical models that many view as mechanistic and reductionist have led to new interest in examining the humane values of religious and spiritual traditions over the centuries. Recent highly publicized and controversial cases of families who have chosen faith healing over medical care have highlighted another more questionable side of some religious alternatives to conventional healing.”

While religious traditions are well known for their historic role in providing explanations of sickness and suffering as well as motivating compassionate care, in the ancient world it was almost universally held that one function of religion was to heal disease.

A primary object for Ferngren in writing Medicine and Religion is to broaden understanding of the history of spirituality within Western medical and healing traditions.  The book will explore the historical continuity of certain leading themes and motifs found in every culture in which religion and medicine intersect, while also highlighting features specific to a particular culture.

A naturalistic and theoretical approach to medicine can be found in the approximately 70 Hippocratic medical treatises that furnish the greatest evidence for Greek rational medicine.  A component of Hippocratic medicine was the creation of medical ethics that was meant to provide a professional standard for physicians. At the same time, said Ferngren, Greek healing was complemented by religious healing, especially in the cult of Asclepius, the most important of many Greek healing gods.

Following the death of Alexander in the fourth century B.C., this complementary professional and religious approach spread through the Mediterranean world and, “without conflict or competition, was adopted everywhere throughout the Roman Empire.”

Intended to be a broad survey, Ferngren’s book, which is under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press, draws on 35 years of research that produced dozens of articles, papers, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries in addition to his previous book. The work is intended for academics and general readers alike, and will aim to avoid the “privileging of Western values” that has too often distorted the understanding of both religion and science.