What does it mean to think about health from a Christian perspective? Martin Wendte, Privatdozent (Lecturer) in Evangelical Theology at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen and minister in Stuttgart, is exploring the lessons that Christian theology can impart in an age where many are obsessed with physical health, with less emphasis on spiritual health. Drawing on the resources of anthropology, ethno-medicine, and disability studies as well as the Christian traditions in Africa and Southeast Asia, he plans to show how seeing Jesus Christ as both a savior and healer can provide new ways for contemporary Christians to think about illness, disability, and health.
Read a blog post by Martin Wendte about Jesus the healer in the age of health-idolatry here.
What was the seed or the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?
I’ve been thinking about what it means for Christianity to become the religion of the Global South. Studies show that almost two-thirds of Christians today live in the Global South—especially Africa, Asia, and South America—which is a huge change from 100 years ago, when most of the Christian population lived in places like North America, Europe, and Australia. And that’s unsettling things we’ve taken for granted in the West for a very long time, including the way that we think about health and healing. In the West, we tend to think of healing as something related to medicine, not religion. Jesus was a teacher, not a healer. That’s a very common perspective in Europe.
But in the Global South, there’s much less of a boundary between those categories. You’re much more likely to meet someone who says, “Actually, it was Jesus who healed me.” And we have to take that seriously, theologically—especially when you read the New Testament and it’s very clear that Jesus is a healer. One-third of the Gospel of Mark consists of healing stories. So in many ways the perspective of Christians in the Global South is closer to the world of the New Testament than in a Western country like Germany. That’s why it’s so important for us to explore these alternate Christianities and allow them to unravel our certainties about who Jesus is and what the Christian tradition can be.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
I think it’s important for us to broaden health as a concept so it can be more helpful for the population and the medical system. Restoring someone to health isn’t just about fixing broken legs. It needs to have more of a holistic, spiritual aspect. And that is crucially related to enhancing life because we are so obsessed with our physical health these days—exercising, dieting, all of it. But it’s all about our body as a tool, and really I think we end up idolizing our bodies and the god of health. When we think about health more broadly, we realize that it’s not just about our bodies.
What intellectual resources are you drawing on in pursuit of this project?
I am trying to make this project as interdisciplinary as possible, because our understandings of health, ability, disability, sickness, disease—it’s all incredibly culturally loaded. So to understand what healing or health meant in the context of the New Testament, I need ethno-medicine and cultural anthropology. Who counted as a doctor at that time? No Roman citizen would have seen Jesus as a doctor. He was a folk healer. And understanding what those categories meant—without projecting our own understandings of health, sickness, and healing into the New Testament’s stories—is very difficult to do and requires a number of different scholarly resources. So I am hoping to enrich my theological work by drawing on these insights from other disciplines.
How do public debates shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?
I want to explore whether churches buy into that health paradigm as well. I’m a pastor and when you visit people or interact with them, you wish them good health as just an everyday greeting. So even just by saying that, we are sort of pointing to this idea that health is the most important thing. But theologically, that’s not the most important thing! I’ve heard people say that at Lent, fasting is good because it’s a health thing, for a diet, not because it helps you repent. So I am hoping to speak to churches and church leaders and say, we are buying too much into the secular understanding of health and together, we need to come up with a more integrated understanding of health that incorporates body and spirit together. In a Christian perspective, you can be healthy although you are dying – because you experience peace with God. Or you can be healthy although you are mentally ill – because you are part of a caring community.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I am in Scotland right now for research, thanks to the support of The Enhancing Life Project, and I’d love to go back to the northwest of Scotland. I went there with my family and it’s unbelievably beautiful. It’s very raw and open landscape, very clear, fantastic light, and the ocean all over the place.