Spiritual Healing On Trial: A Christian Scientist Reports

by Stephen Gottschalk

Mr. Gottschalk is a Christian Scientist who works as an editor and consultant for the Church of Christ, Scientist. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 22-29, 1988, p. 602. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Christian Scientists do not claim that their practice of spiritual healing should be accommodated in law simply because it is religious, but rather that it should not be proscribed by law simply because it is religious, and there is not clear evidence that it is ineffectual.

In May a young Christian Science couple pleaded Innocent in a Boston courtroom to charges of manslaughter in the death of their two-year-old son. Ginger and David Twitchell had sought to treat their son’s bowel obstruction through spiritual means. The case may not go to trial, for the Twitchells’ conduct appears to fall under a Massachusetts statute that, according to an attorney general for the Commonwealth, "expressly precludes imposition of criminal liability as a negligent parent for failure to provide medical care because of religious beliefs." The district attorney can prosecute the couple only by finding a way around this statute.

Prosecutions of Christian Science parents are also pending in California and Florida, but the charges against the Twitchells have drawn special attention, being brought in the very shadow of the dome of the Mother Church, world headquarters of the denomination. Some media covering the case have tried to exploit this dramatic aspect. Yet the breadth of the coverage -- from tabloids and radio talk shows to wire-service stories and TV discussion forums -- has also allowed legal thinkers, medical ethicists and church spokespeople to begin sorting out opinions.

Terms such as "complex," "dilemma" and "far reaching" have studded more informed discussions of the case. In Harvard law professor Arthur Miller’s words: "The courts have to balance the rights of the parents, the rights of religion, and the rights of the state," and this is "almost impossible to do with any precision and consistency." A widely quoted church statement asserts, "It is obvious that what is being put on trial here is not the action of individual parents but a public policy, a healing practice, and a way of life in many families."

Even some of those who oppose laws accommodating Christian Science healing for children (in Massachusetts and most other states) hold that prosecutions of already grieving parents makes little sense. In a strongly worded statement condemning such laws, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that it did not "advocate punishment of offending parents as a solution." Of the Twitchell case specifically, Kenneth Simmons, law professor at Boston University, said, "I think there is a very good argument that this is an illegal prosecution, and beyond that I also believe it’s an unwise prosecution because Christian Scientists looking at that law would quite reasonably believe that they are protected."

The issue in the case appears to revolve around a conflict between the parents’ First Amendment rights to practice their religious beliefs and the state’s duty to protect the health of children. Most commentators hold that while adults have the right to practice spiritual healing for themselves, they have no religious right to endanger their children’s health. The most intriguing and least-noticed aspect of the debate is that Christian Scientists agree with this position. They do not emphasize their religious right as over against the state’s interest, but accept parents obligation to maintain their children’s health and the state’s interest in seeing that this is done. A fair estimate of Christian Science healing, they maintain, would show it to be an effective form of treatment which responsibly fulfills this obligation, with a support system including nonmedical nursing and care facilities for the sick. As a church member put it to an interviewer, "The refusal of medical care is because we have found through experience and demonstration of healing that spiritual means -- prayer and spiritual treatment -- work more effectively for us" ("Christian Scientists Say Prayer is Best Medicine," Lawrence Eagle Tribune, May 9)

It is important to establish what is meant by "spiritual treatment." Christian Scientists hold that behind all diseases are mental factors rooted in the human mind’s blindness to God’s presence and our authentic relation to God, revealed in the life of Christ. They hold that treatment is a form of prayer or communion with God in which God’s reality and power, admitted and witnessed to, become so real as to eclipse the temporal "reality" of disease and pain. Such treatment they see as actively and specifically ministering to human need. As one Christian Scientist explained it to a high-school group, "Healing happens when your sense of God becomes greater than your sense of the problem."

Christian Scientists do not claim that their practice of spiritual healing should be accommodated in law simply because it is religious, but rather that it should not be proscribed by law simply because it is religious, and in the absence of clear evidence that it is ineffectual. In view of laws requiring medical care for children, they assert that not accommodating their form of healing in law would be to proscribe it. But would such accommodations violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment? No, say Christian Scientists. Pointing to other statutes and court decisions recognizing special practices of the Amish, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists and Jews, among others, they argue that in their case also, such laws are necessary to implement the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Remarked church spokesperson Nathan Talbot: "We abhor the idea that the Constitution gives anyone the right to martyr a child. But our approach to healing demands fair consideration. As with any form of treatment, Christian Science deserves to be judged on the basis of an overall assessment of its results, rather than on the a priori assumption that nothing but medical care should be acceptable by the state as a means of caring for the health of the young.

The question of the evidence for spiritual healing is a thorny one. An important exploration of the issue is Robert Peel’s recent book Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age (Harper & Row, 1987) The core of the work consists of affidavits by Christian Scientists attesting to the healing of such disorders as spinal meningitis, compound pelvic fracture, broken vertebra, breast cancer, cancer of the uterus, double club feet, third-degree burns, acute rheumatic fever, polio, eczema, epilepsy, appendicitis, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, diptheria and glaucoma. Each of the healings Peel cites, over half of which involve children, were medically corroborated either by diagnoses or follow-up medical examination or both.

In the March issue of Second Opinion exploring the relation of faith, medicine and healing, James P. Wind notes that "Peel’s book explores the dangerous zone between theology and medicine" and "asks readers -- especially those with reflexive skepticism about the subject -- to take seriously the revival of spiritual healing in our post-modern age." But with the exception of this rather adventurous issue of Second Opinion, there is little to indicate that such reflection is occurring. Wind cites Peel’s reference to a British physician’s judgment that serious scholarship in this zone of inquiry can be a form of "academic suicide." Peel’s book itself has received surprisingly few academic reviews, which suggests that the questions it raises are regarded by many as beyond serious consideration.

The militantly secular views that dismiss spiritual healing are known quantities. In the current debate over Christian Science, it is almost commonplace for those holding these views to write off accounts of spiritual healing with the reductionistic if not pejorative term "anecdotal," since they refer to real-life events rather than ones that occur in a laboratory context. (Even so, what is surprising about Peel’s book is how much medical corroboration there is for the healing accounts.)

From a Christian standpoint, the decision not to take seriously the evidence for spiritual healing has sobering implications. If one rejects out of hand the evidence for Christian healing, many would ask, is one not rejecting an aspect of Christian experience necessary to the realization of the gospel’s promise today? As Gordon Dalbey noted six years ago, "The ministry of physical healing stands in the center of our Christian faith. And yet, though the Gospels are filled with stories of healing, and the Church itself is born through an act of healing (Acts 3) , most church people seem anxious to disown these stories, as if they embarrassed us" ("Recovering Christian Healing," The Christian Century, June 9-16, 1982).

Probably fewer church people would be embarrassed by these stories today. During this decade, the recovery of Christian healing has accelerated to the point that it has become an undeniable part of the Christian landscape. As with most grass-roots movements, it has included differing and in some instances contradictory approaches. And both Christian Science and the form of Christian healing that has become part of mainstream church life should be clearly differentiated from the "faith healing" associated with TV evangelism, itinerant evangelists (portrayed, for example, in the recent CBS television film "Promised a Miracle") and fundamentalist groups such as Faith Assembly. A recent article in a Christian Science periodical observed, "Many Christians who have ministries of healing reject the label ‘faith healing.’ It’s becoming apparent that blind faith doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of an increasingly sophisticated and technological society" (David B. Andrews, "The Future of Christian Healing: Fresh Convictions and Spiritual Realism," Christian Science Journal. June 1988, p. 33)

A Methodist minister actively involved in spiritual healing for many years speaks for one current of opinion when he says, "Christian Science has been a tremendous influence because it has put its finger right on what Christ says about healing the sick. Christian Scientists have demonstrated it; they have practiced it and put it at the very heart of what they’re trying to do" ("Christian Science and Spiritual Healing Today: A Conversation with the Reverend Paul Higgins," Christian Science Sentinel, October 6, 1986, p. 1860)

The most questionable aspect of Christian Science for many is its view that medical and spiritual treatment cannot be beneficially combined. For Christian Scientists, this approach follows from a belief that spiritual treatment rests on a basis wholly different from that of medicine. It does not mean that one cannot pray as any Christian would that another experience more of God’s healing love. But it is motivated by a concern that patients not rely for healing on contradictory forms of treatment -- and also by deference to the efforts of medical professionals if their care has been elected. The church strongly emphasizes that choice of treatment remains wholly individual and voluntary. However, those engaged in the ministry of Christian Science healing for the public must usually withdraw their names from listings in church periodicals for a stipulated period of time if they decide to make use of medical care for themselves.

Whatever one’s view of this approach to healing, it has resulted in a body of evidence about healings that have been effected through spiritual means alone. In light of this evidence, it is ironic that Christian Science healing should be attracting attention more by its failure than by its successes. Put in an unenviable media spotlight, Christian Scientists have objected to what they see as the inequity of the public judgment upon them. As one of them put it recently, "Many children, as well as adults, die under medical care. . . . Nobody gives a second thought to those, they just let it go . . . whereas a few cases where prayer has appeared to fail are brought out and publicized all over the country" (Lawrence Eagle Tribune, May 9)

Yet for Christian Scientists, as for those in the medical community, failures in practice often cause genuine soul-searching. A brief interview with David Twitchell on ABC’s "20/20" gave a public glimpse of a private struggle. "Maybe a doctor could have saved Robyn," he said. But then he added, "Have you ever asked a doctor for a guarantee?" -- a pointed comment, considering the consent forms typically required for those undergoing medical treatment listing multiple risks for which hospitals disclaim responsibility. Yet for Twitchell the honest regret remained: "If we were closer to God we could have stopped this from happening. In that way I blame myself."

Such aching "ifs" have also been voiced by medical professionals and those who have sought their ministrations. In medicine, as in spiritual healing, particular failures prove nothing unless related to an overall record. There may never be a "scientific" way to measure the record of Christian Scientists against that of medical treatment, other than the more or less commonsense observation that Christian Scientists are generally reasonable citizens who have not been losing children at a conspicuously rapid rate. There are currently five prosecutions in process against Christian Scientists who have lost children in this decade, during which intense media scrutiny has been given to the issue.

The death of a child under any circumstances or method of care is jarring. It is difficult to determine the number of Christian Scientists relying upon spiritual means for the healing of children, but the handful of losses among their children does not seem dramatically high for a small but widespread denomination. In Massachusetts, where Christian Science is relatively strong. Robyn Twitchell is the only child to have died under Christian Science care during this decade.

It is the successes of a healing system, not just its failures, that its opponents must reckon with. Future decades may see that reluctance to take the evidence for spiritual healing seriously as one last form of resistance to the drastic deconstruction of the mechanistic concept of reality. "Twentieth century physics," writes Peel, "suggests reality may be different from that posited by the reductionist, determinist, or ‘scientific’ materialism of the past -- and posited still by the biomedical hard-liner of today." Not that the evidence for spiritual healing is itself enough to validate a theological viewpoint. Yet the cumulative weight of testimony as to its validity is more than sufficient to disrupt the complacency of a biomedical world view that would exclude it.

In view of the indictment of the Twitchells and others. assessing this evidence is far more than an intellectual exercise. The reality of spiritual healing as Christian Scientists practice it matters profoundly to those who believe it to be dangerous. It matters to Christian Scientists who see their form of healing not only as a valid and responsible form of healthcare but as vital to the future of Christianity. One fact is certain: dealing with this question demands a rationality disciplined enough to discard dogmatisms, both religious and scientific.