Orthodox Christianity and Chinese medicine
Essay based on presentation given at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge University, July 2006:
Western science has rested on a fundamentally materialist paradigm since at least around the sixteenth century (see, for example, Sherrard or Sheldrake). It is rooted in a “dualist” view of the universe in which physical matter is studied, and therefore conceived as, in a separate compartment from the world of the spirit. In turn, Western medicine rests on this materialist paradigm. The human person is analysed, and therefore treated, purely in terms of its physical components. Consequently, western medicine tends to ignore the role of the spirit in health and illness. It has lost sight of what is common knowledge in most other cultures, that the state of the spirit is of fundamental importance in state of health.
From the point of view of Christian theology, this separation of the human being into “spirit” and “physical body” can be seen as a manifestation of the Fall . Following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise”, the human being is fragmented. The human spirit has become alienated from God, and is consequently incomplete, unwhole, and dis-integrated. We are oriented mainly towards the physical world, and although our spirit is still alive, it is obscured beneath the “earth” . The constant bombardment of impressions from the physical world, through our senses, drowns out the quiet voice of the spirit. The spirit is that part of us which seeks God, so through the Fall we have turned away from God, towards the material world.
So how can we relate Chinese medicine relate to this Christian paradigm? Chinese medicine underwent no scientific revolution, as Western medicine did. As a result, it has retained a much more integrated view of the human being than has Western medicine. Crucially, it retains an understanding of the human being as an integrated entity of both spirit and matter, of mind (in the highest sense of the word) and body. It shows in great detail how problems in the spirit may become problems in the body, and vice versa. Illness may arise at the level of the spirit, and become physical. Or illness may arise at the physical level, and become illness of the spirit.
As the Christian Bible looks back to a state of paradise before the Fall, one key Chinese medical text (the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, from around 200 BC) harks back to a time when humankind lived in a more paradisical state: “Previously, people led a calm and honest existence, detached from undue desire and ambition… because they lived simply, these individuals knew contentment… they had compassion for others and were helpful and honest… they remained unshakeable and unswayed by temptations” (p2). Nowadays, however, people seek “emotional excitement and momentary pleasures, people disregard the natural rhythm and order of the universe” (p1). This has led to most people suffering illness, and life expectancy falling from around one hundred to around fifty years.
What has changed is that humankind no longer lives in accordance with the Tao. Our physical existence does not follow the true calling of our spirit to follow the Tao. However, unlike Western medicine, Chinese medicine at least retains a vision of how one can strive towards a reintegration of spirit and body. More importantly, perhaps, it retains a medical method to try and bring body and spirit back into harmony.
Chinese medicine remains rooted in a paradigm that incorporates the spirit, whereas western medicine remains rooted in a paradigm that strives to exclude it.
The Tao and the Logos
We have just mentioned that Chinese medicine recognises that human’s have “fallen”. To be more precise, it holds that humans have fallen away from the Tao. They have stopped living their lives in accordance with the Tao. So what is Tao?
The word has been translated and understood in many ways. It can mean a path, or a way. It can mean the origin of life, or the organising principle of existence.
St John’s Gospel starts with the words: “In the beginning was the Logos”. In the context of the Bible, Logos is usually translated as Word. The Word in this context is usually taken to mean Christ. Some translators of the Bible into Chinese have rendered St John’s words as “in the beginning was the Tao” (for example, Dr John Wu, see Merton, p33; see also Damascene). The translators obviously saw a parallel between the concept of Tao as the architect of creation, and the Christian Logos.
In the words of the Christian Nicene Creed, “all things were made through Him” (that is, Christ). Similarly, one key Taoist, Lao Tsu, sees Tao as the generating principle for all things. Christ, and the Tao, can be characterised as the uncreated. They have always existed, and always will exist.
While we do not have space in this essay to explore the relationship between Tao and Logos, it is sufficient for present purposes to point out that in both Christian and Chinese paradigms illness is due to a separation from the uncreated source of life. We noted the Yellow Emperor’s insight that illness came about because of man’s departure from Tao. Christian theology also makes it clear that illness was introduced by the Fall: “neither illness or deformity existed in the beginning with our original nature” (St Gregory of Nyssa, in Larchet p19). However, it is “because of the sin of disobedience that illness torments mankind” (St Irenaeus, in Larchet, p27).
The Fall involves a loss of harmony between humankind and the rest of creation. Christian theology says that when humankind fell, the whole of creation was put out of balance. This is because humans were the stewards of all creation. When the master is sick, his household will also suffer.
In Chinese medicine, the loss of Tao manifests in the elements being out of balance. These elements are water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Each element governs particular physical organs, as well as emotions and parts of the spirit. For example, water governs the kidneys, the emotion of fear, and that part of the spirit which is willpower (the “zhi” in Chinese). Wood governs the liver, the emotion of anger, and that part of the spirit which pertains to the “heavenly” or “ethereal” realm (the “Hun” in Chinese).
Until around the time of the Renaissance, western medicine held a similar medical paradigm based on the elements, although the elements themselves were different (water, earth, fire and air). Certainly, medicine as practiced in Christian Byzantium was based on the elements, and we can see references in certain Fathers to this paradigm. For example, St Neilos says “the body falls ill when the balance of its constituent elements is impaired, because one of them has come to predominate in a manner contrary to nature” (Philokalia vol 1 p 234). Today some Christians are nervous of Chinese medicine because its system of elements seems “pagan”, so hopefully they will be reassured to see the Fathers using this system comfortably!
So how does the Chinese system of elements work? Let us take the above mentioned example of the wood element. In Chinese medicine each element governs both a specific emotion and an organ: wood governs anger and the liver. If a human being gets excessively angry, or is unable to deal with her anger, then over a period of time the liver will be affected. In modern terms, we may see a build up of toxins due to liver dysfunction. This may lead, for example, to headaches or joint pain. Chinese medicine also relates each element to an aspect of the human spirit, and wood is related to the “ethereal” or “heavenly” aspect of the spirit. If the wood element is out of balance, the “ethereal” part of the spirit will also be affected: we can say that the person will become more alienated from the Divine. Her “spiritual vision” will become more clouded, she will feel unsettled.
An imbalance in one element always spreads to the other elements. More worryingly perhaps, it spreads out to the people around us, and actually penetrates the whole cosmos. Our own state of being therefore is infinitely significant, as it will impact the whole of creation. We see here how humankind’s “fall” impacts on the whole of creation.
By applying Chinese medicine to this person, let us say acupuncture and herbs, it is hoped that the anger will recede, and the person will become more “balanced”. This will have an effect on the physical liver, and on the “spirit”.
But will this work? Acupuncturists themselves disagree about the extent to which acupuncture alone can treat the spirit (see discussion in European Journal of Oriental Medicine, 2005/ 2006, including my own article). Spiritual growth, many argue, is a hard won inner battle, and can not be achieved merely by external intervention. The Yellow Emperor certainly says words to this effect, cautioning that in order for acupuncture to be effective one must first treat the spirit. It seems that the “spirit” must be worked on in its own right. This certainly accords with my own clinical experience: those patients who do best are those who are willing to work on their own spirit. Nevertheless, Chinese medicine can provide great support and insight for those who are willing to do so.
Although Chinese medicine strives to harmonise the elements as far as possible, it is recognised that no human will be totally in balance, and therefore free from illness. There is a kind of tacit assumption that imperfection is part of our nature, especially since humankind departed from the Tao. In a sense this accords with the Christian view, that illness is an unavoidable part of our fallen nature. Even the saints succumb to illness, so deep rooted is our collective human imperfection.
Transforming the spirit
We have just mentioned that Chinese medicine recognises the need to transform the spirit to bring about healing. This is certainly a key part of the Christian ascetic struggle. In the case of anger, for example, great inner effort is needed to transform it. Through struggle, negative anger can be transformed into positive “incensive power”. Rather than just getting rid of it, “our incensive power can be used in a way that is according to nature only when it is turned against our own impassioned or self indulgent thoughts” (St John Cassian, in Philokalia vol 1, p83). In the language of Chinese medicine, Cassian’s transformation will lead to a “harmonisation” of the wood element. This will have a beneficial impact on the physical liver (the organ ruled by wood).
Differences between the Taoist and the Orthodox View of Health
So far we have made much of the similarities between Chinese medicine and the Orthodox Christian approach to illness and healing. There are, however, important differences too, which it is important not to gloss over. Unfortunately we have little space to do this, so a brief summary will have to suffice here.
One key difference is between Tao and God. The Christian God is a personal God, whereas the Tao is not. The Christian path to healing therefore requires the development of a personal relationship with God. Although the Christian must himself struggle to find healing, ultimately we must to ask for God’s help. The Taoist relies on his own efforts alone.
Furthermore, Taoism is essentially cyclical and backward looking: one can only attempt to recreate the paradisical state described in the Yellow Emperor. Christianity, on the other hand, has a historical, linear dimension. After Christ’s incarnation, things can never be the same. We are not called to go backwards to become like Adam and Eve, we are called forward in a never ending path towards God. The Taoist circle repeats itself endlessly. The cross extends outwards in all directions to infinity.
In the Christian model, all healing comes from God, who is love. Only a loving relationship with a personal God can bring full healing. The Taoist worldview pays no attention to the role of God’s love in healing.
The Chinese model usually implies a necessary connection between spiritual illness and bodily illness. In other words, a bodily affliction tends to reflect a spiritual imbalance in a particular person. This is by no means the case in Christianity, where illness is suffered by saints and sinners alike. The Christian view contains the Taoist view as merely one possibility: physical illness may reflect spiritual malaise: “Remove sin and illnesses disappear” (St Basil in Larchet p50). However, the Christian view offers other, wider possibilities too. Illness may be sent to try people, as in the case of Job. Illness may lead us to recognise our estrangement from God. Illness may lead us to recognise our total dependence on God, and undermine our pride in our own strength. Certainly, in the Christian view, illness by no means implies that an individual’s illness is a specific reflection of her spiritual state.
The Christian understanding that man is made in the image of God has crucial implications for the healing process. To become healed, to become whole, is to try and live up to the likeness of the divine image in which we are created. We aspire to be full humans, in imitation of Christ himself. Again, we are called ever forward in pursuit of perfection, rather than backwards to a bygone era. We are called to creative development, rather than backwards in a never ending circle.
Chinese medicine and Orthodoxy have much to learn from each other. Chinese medicine reminds us that body and soul should be intimately connected, and indeed gives a method and framework for working to this end.
Orthodox Christianity reminds us that the central requirement for true healing is to re-establish our relationship with God. It recognises that this will tend to bring about bodily healing too, but that illness must sometimes be accepted as part of God’s plan.
Damascene, Heiromonk: Christ the Eternal Tao (Valaam)
English, J & Gia Fu Feng (trans): Lao Tsu – Tao Te Ching (Gower)
Larchet, J C: The Theology of Illness (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
Lewis, C S: The Abolition of Man (Harper Collins, 2001)
Merton, Thomas: Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968)
Ni, M: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Shambala)
Palmer, Sherrard & Ware: Philokalia vol 1 (Faber & Faber)
Sheldrake, R: The Greening of God
Sherrard, P: Human Image, World Image (Golgonooza Press)
Unschuld, P: Medicine in China (University of California)
European Journal of Oriental Medicine, 2005 – 2006