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Health in Body and in Spirit: A Q&A with Dr. Martin Wendte

Jesus the Healer in the Era of Health-Idolatry

May 12, 2016 • By Martin Wendte Jesus the Healer in the Era of Health-Idolatry

As a German on a three-month research sabbatical in Aberdeen, Scotland, I’m making new discoveries about the popularity of the church in Scotland—or rather the lack thereof. There’s something especially poignant about being here with the support of The Enhancing Life Project. This Sunday, I joined five elderly women and two men in church where I heard a sermon on the miraculous healing stories of Jesus. On the way home I passed a fitness-studio packed with people, reminding me of a remarkable statistic. Since the year 2000, more people in Germany have signed up as members of fitness-clubs than have attended Roman Catholic Sunday services each week. Why does it seem so much more appropriate today to spend Sunday morning enhancing our bodies rather than our spiritual lives?

My current research attempts to come to terms with this contemporary situation in order to discern how theology might best react to it. Sociologists tell us that we are in the middle of the “third revolution of health.” The Enlightenment project with its utopian aspects imagined society as a healthy society – one in which sickness has been totally overcome. Chasing this ideal in19th century Germany led to the conceptualization of health as a public policy problem. During this “first revolution of health,” governments improved drinking water supplies as one of many new health and safety measures. The “second revolution of health” took place in the middle of the 20th century. Health became more closely connected to medicine, and it was defined as the appropriate, technically-supported interactions between doctors and patients. In the late 1970s, the “third revolution of health” began. Over the last two decades, this final revolution has gained a new momentum that has come to define the central dynamics of our current situation. 

Today, health is a “megatrend” in our society. With the advent of the “third revolution,” health has become less connected to a specialized medical sphere and has become a personal matter. This includes the bodily, psychological, and social dimensions of health. More specifically, health has come to be understood through a positive concept of well-being that has displaced older views which defined health as the absence of illness. This means health has become something that everyone has a responsibility to look after in his or her day-to-day life.

There are three aspects of this new situation that are crucial to notice. First, health has been made a decisive aspect of our identity. Surveys suggest that health is overwhelmingly the thing people most value in life. There is a quasi-religious aspect to this valuation: being healthy is construed as leading a fulfilled life. Second, health is an ideal that is increasingly served by a market for health-related goods and services. Economic agendas and copious advertising propagate these ideals. Third, our obsession with health is a trend driven in part by the presumption that health is something that we all can do, and which we should therefore take responsibility for. The interaction of these three aspects unleashes a new dynamic: lifestyle merges into health-style. Why not use these newly advertised pills to improve your fitness and thus become the “you” that you were meant to be—feeling good, or at least becoming fit enough to be alert at school and persevere at work, even if you feel a little less than optimal?

Put in slightly different terms, there seems to be a toxic compound at work comprised of two major components: one, health is mainly understood as bodily health in an instrumentalized perspective (in which my body is considered only as an object in space). Two, we connect questions of our identity to our body through this instrumentalized perspective. Both aspects cannot be understood if we do not grasp that they are expressions of our living in a technological age. In contrast with the position taken by Sarah Bianchi in her recent blog post, I do not define technology in terms of its compensatory functions, because I hold that this definition does not allow the all-encompassing, formative force of technology to come into view. Following Heidegger and Foucault and their reading of Nietzsche, I understand technology as a way of being in the world that tempts us to perceive and treat both our world and ourselves as objects and as instruments for an identity that we have to build up by our own works. It is an indication that we are in a technological world when we think it is more worthwhile to go to the gym on Sunday to work on our bodies, instead of going to church to receive something that we cannot create.

The New Testament offers us a remarkably different understanding of health and of the enhancement of life. Modern ethno-medicine has helped us to see that, in anthropological terms, understandings of health, medicine, and healing have differed greatly over the millennia. Ethno-medicine helps us to gain a better understanding of what was going on in the healing activities of Jesus. Most importantly, in the gospel narratives Jesus is presented as linking the person’s physical improvement with the more important aspect of healing the person’s relationship to God.

In the New Testament, spiritual health is understood as coming first. It includes the liberating insight that our identity is given to us—we do not have to achieve it ourselves. This alteration of our horizons attacks both our idolized understanding of our bodies while simultaneously giving our bodily health a real value. It is a relativization that allows us to consider what modern medicine finds difficult: that we might be healthy when we are dying.  

Read a Q&A with Martin Wendte about his research here.

Photo courtesy of Gareth Williams via Flickr.