Whatever happened to spiritual health?

I begin by worshipping the gods, and try to conduct myself in such a way that in answer to my prayers I may have health and physical strength, esteem in the city, the affection of my friends, safety with honour in war, and wealth increased by honest means – Ischomachus, in the Oikonomikos, 11.8

In the modern western world, when we are faced with health problems that we can’t explain, we simply say it is undiagnosed. If it relates to emotions, or we cannot observe any physical symptoms, we call it mental illness.

However, in the ancient and medieval world, there was a spiritual dimension to health. In many parts of the world, there still is. Yoga, for instance, is not just about stretching, but for many has a spiritual goal.  And the word hygiene comes from Hygieia, who, according to the Open University, was health personified, worshipped in the 4th century BC.

Spirituality is difficult to study in a clinical, academic context. We can debate the meanings religious texts, or try to find parallels with secular history and archaeology for stories. But commandments, repentance and prayer aren’t popular topics for academic study.

While the university and the hospital were inventions of the catholic church, most universities today like to think of themselves as secular institutions. Perhaps this relates to funding and recruitment. Limiting yourself to one religion, in a pluralistic society, could limit sources of finance, as well as impacting the diversity of your student body and researchers.

You can, in a secular way, prove that alcohol has certain effects. However, if you believe that drinking alcohol is a sin, you might not conduct the tests to prove it.  The same goes for eating meat, or anything else affected by religious restrictions.

Some scientists conduct tests on animals, but what if you believe that the spirits of the animals would avenge those tests? Or, you have other ethical objections to such tests?  Or, those of us who just like animals and don’t like to see them suffer?

Within a religion we can discuss spiritual health, and its links to mental health and perhaps even physical health. However, to those who don’t share that religion, it may all seem a placebo.

That said, the concept of spiritual health still exists on a secular level, and not only in alternative and complimentary medicine. The mind, like the spirit, is not fully defined as something physical.  The mind is not the same thing as the brain.

Mental health practitioners don’t generally go to medical school, but study psychology as a “social” science.  As Mathijs Lucassen points out, Mental health is even funded differently from “physical” health, even if many mental health issues may have a physical cause. Indeed, even when we don’t know the cause for behaviour, we echo the ancients if we suggest that a person is “chemically imbalanced.”

In the ancient Greco-Roman pagan world, and the medieval Catholic Europe, people needed a spiritual balance as well as a balance of bodily fluids to be healthy. Bloodletting was used to treat illnesses (and mental conditions) that were seen as being caused by an excess of blood. There were only a few physical substances to be balanced, (Phlegm, blood, bile and “melancholy”), rather than a large number of hormones.

While the secular nature of medical schools doesn’t consider “spiritual” causes or treatments, that doesn’t mean that religious wisdom is discarded completely.  Even the most secular of doctors acknowledges that if something works, it’s worth a try.  Many secular treatments have spiritual origins, but have been rigorously tested in clinical trials.

And, treatments from yoga to acupuncture can be regulated in an attempt to prevent quacks from practising them.

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