What is Integrated Health?

by Daniel Deffenbaugh

Over the last few years I have had a recurring conversation with many of my students. On the one hand, they are drawn to the sacred disciplines of the world’s religions, practices that very specifically integrate human spirituality and bodily health. Yoga classes on college campuses these days are filled to capacity, and the same can be said for the lesser-known arts of Tai Ch’i and Xi Gong. On the other hand, while many students participate in these exercises, some cannot help but feel morally conflicted when they do so. Is it wrong, they ask, for a Christian to practice yoga?

 Typically I try to look at these situations as teaching and learning moments, and in good Socratic fashion I deflect the question back to them. “I don’t know,” I respond, “where do you see the conflict?” The ensuing conversation usually goes in a variety of directions, with preliminary concerns about idolatry and blasphemy giving way to more critical examinations of God’s will for human well-being. But invariably the dialogue ends with the same lament: Why doesn’t Christianity have a spiritual discipline like yoga?

 It is ironic that a faith tradition so replete with body imagery has produced an institution so disinterested in the embodied existence of its believers. Despite efforts of early apologists to refute Gnostic suspicions of the material world, the Gnostic heresy has remained alive and well in the church right up to the present. We Christians like our spirituality clean and unencumbered by the realities of bodily experience. The flip side of this attitude is equally disturbing, and can be found among many health care professionals who pay little attention to the role that spirituality can play in the maintenance of optimum human health. So we compartmentalize the various aspects of our lived experience and apportion them to the appropriate professionals when necessary. To the physicians go our bodies; to the ministers, our souls. And never the twain shall meet.

If we have learned anything from Paul it is this: we do not stand alone but are instead communal creatures. Our lives are marked by interdependence.

The Apostle Paul knew firsthand how stifling a house divided like this can be. The church in Corinth was notorious for the way it parceled out the gifts of the spirit into separate spheres. It took the patience of a teacher like Paul to remind them that a truly healthy community functions less like a machine—with its various parts working independently of each other—and more like an organism. The church is the body of Christ, he said. Don’t treat it like a cadaver. We find harmony in our diverse capacities by the invigorating and unifying spirit of our Redeemer.

Despite two millennia of reflection on the importance of this insight, the church—and Western society—finds itself committing some of the same mistakes that were made in Corinth. Health has come to be defined as the absence of disease, when in fact the shalom that God wills for the world is more concerned with the presence of vitality, of well-being and wholeness. For this reason, Christians need now more than ever to work toward a new vision of integrated health. If we have learned anything from Paul it is this: we do not stand alone but are instead communal creatures. Our lives are marked by interdependence. At the individual level, we are body, mind, and spirit. Optimum human health can only be achieved when all three of these are brought into harmony with each other. At the social and ecological level, we are members of myriad networks whose vitality is equally important to us. From an integrated health perspective, my well-being is a function of the communities of which I am a part. What good is a clean bill of health if I bring it home to a violent relationship, or to a povertystricken home, or to an environmentally contaminated neighborhood?

Like my students, I wish that Christianity had a spiritual discipline like yoga. Perhaps we can work on creating one, and with the weight of tradition behind us. The real affront to God lies not in exploring the practices of another world religion, but rather in living as if our spirituality has nothing to do with the body that God so consistently affirms throughout scripture. While society encourages us to place the various aspects of our lived experience in little cubby holes, the real insight of Christian spirituality is that all of this is of a piece—integrated—and should be celebrated as such. “There are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:6).

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