J o u r n a l of Religion and Health, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring 1992


What Anyone Can Do We have frequently said here and elsewhere that we are not very enthusiastic about reports of sudden cures of illnesses and injuries attributed to charismatic healers, nor about healings attributed to shrines, relics, supernatural appearances of the Virgin or other spiritual figures. Miracles are not in our line, so to speak. A miracle is defined as "an effect in the physical world which surpasses all known h u m a n or natural powers and is therefore ascribed to a supernatural agency." (American College Dictionary) This does not mean t h a t there are not m a n y instances of sudden changes in illnesses, swift and inexplicable remissions, and other phenomena of healing that cannot be explained at the present state of our scientific knowledge. But these events seem to be more a sign of the limits of our understanding t h a n of supernatural intervention. Rationally speaking, either assumption is possible, but we are more likely to advance our knowledge if we turn our attention to extending our understanding and pushing back the limits of science than if we wait hopefully for the supernatural to break in over the boundaries. Every scientist knows t h a t new t r u t h is not easily won, but comes only as the result of patient and often prolonged seeking. Religion's real contribution to health and well-being comes because through religion people can develop a style of life that makes for wholeness. All too often, it seems to us, religion has approached seekers who are wandering in need of help with a demand for belief rather than more concrete suggestions as to how life may be lived usefully and constructively. The tacit assumption of m a n y churches and denominations has been that one must assent to the faith before one is able to follow the path. Arguments in favor of this approach are numerous and familiar. How can one do what is good and wholesome unless one has a sense of meaning and purpose? How can one find the way without a chart and a guide for the journey? But it is also possible t h a t the opposite assumption may be more practi~'al and effective for the one in pain and doubt. Instead of seeking a final answer and a clear picture of all that is implied in religion, let the seeker start with some small, simple, positive steps. It is not always easy to find those simple practical steps. Because we are concerned with religion not only as faith and ritual, but as an expression of commitment to such social ideals as justice, equality, compassion, and peace, we have often found ourselves involved in groups t h a t seek to make a practical difference in community, national, and international affairs. A13

cc:)1992 Institutes of Religion and Health

Journal of Religion and Health

ways in such groups there is a lot of frustration and questioning as to what the best ways are for expressing their ethical values. People get discouraged. The affairs of national government and international peace are so vast and complex t h a t people wonder whether anyt hi ng a single person or the members of a small group say or do can possibly make any difference. We suspect th at much of the political apathy t ha t is most clearly shown in the fact t hat about h alf of all Americans do not bother to exercise their right to vote comes from the feeling t hat it really doesn't m a t t e r what one person says or does. The cynical comment, "Don't vote, it only encourages them," is born of a deep sense of defeatism about the whole democratic process. It suggests the gloomy conclusion t h a t almost all politicians are corrupt or corruptible, and t h a t even if they are not so to start with, the system itself will erode and eventually destroy such ethical values as they may have had. How can a handful of people with neither money nor power hope to shape the values of the whole complicated system? it is hard to overcome the inertia one feels when one looks at the size of the problems we all face as members of the h u m a n race and the feebleness of our individual efforts. We have been aided in our efforts to find sound and enduring value in individual action for social justice and peace by the reflection t h a t m a n y of the profound changes in h u m a n behavior and the advances in social concerns began in the efforts of individuals and small groups. We recently ran across a s tatemen t from the London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends which suggests a way of thinking about one's personal efforts. Meetings of the Society of Friends frequently publish queries and guides for the examination of conscience arising out of the experiences and insights of their own members. This one, circulated by the Wider Quaker Fellowship in 1990, runs as follows: Incomparably the most important thing is that each one of us should be sensitive to the call of God to ourselves and not spend time in passing judgment on the lives of others. To some the call will be to adopt the witness of great simplicity, perhaps to live in an Indian village or in a London slum. To others the most important thing will be to maintain our ancient testimony against "fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatever." But perhaps most will be called to the humdrum tasks of serving an employer supremely well, or running a house, bringing up a family, keeping the peace with difficult neighbours, serving the community in little things--the tasks which, because they are simple, are in fact most difficult to do with dedication . . . . Our duty is to be sensitive to what God is asking us to do, and not to dissipate our energies trying to be absolutists in several directions at once. For those Of a non-theistic or agnostic point of view the two instances of God language can be translated without loss of their ethical significance by simply substituting the word "conscience" for the word "God." In either case, we are talking about the same kind of religious impulse and commitment: "My God or my conscience tells me t hat I must protest against this wrong or follow this course t h a t I perceive to be right, no m a t t e r what anybody else does."

Harry C. Meserve


It is not necessarily true that an inspired vision of faith must precede conscientious action in the real world of practical activity for ethical purposes. Sometimes the action must be taken in advance of faith that it will succeed, in the simple, perhaps naive, conviction that in the here and now it is plainly the decent, humane, ethical thing to. Henry J. Cadbury, a lifelong Quaker and for many years in the 20th century the leader of the American Friends Service Committee, the Society of Friends' effort to change society, erase injustice, and promote compassion and peace, remarked late in his life that while he had never doubted that some people had illuminating, even mystical experiences of the divine and the divine imperative, he had never had such an experience. He had simply gone forward, following his own conscience, and found confidence in that. "If anyone will do his [God's or conscience's] will, he shall know the doctrine." Non-mystics, Cadbury reflected, must learn to do their best in the absence of God. "Religion is not only the beatific vision; it is getting on without it." We think that conventional and orthodox Christianity have put too much emphasis on revelation from on high as a prerequisite for ethical action. Some, and they include many whose actions have made a tremendous ethical difference, have gone at things the other way around. They began with small things that seemed obviously necessary, humane, and ethical and have found reassurance in their action and the action they helped inspire in others of like mind. It is true that firm belief and the sense of direction it provides can lead to effective action. But it is also true that action and the experience that goes with it can lead to firm conviction, the kind of faith we might call "reality-tested." There are many kinds of depression today. Some arise from deep internal disorders of mind and spirit and can be treated by drugs. Some arise from psychological confusions and can be treated by psychotherapy. Some arise from a sense of personal weakness and powerlessness in which people feel that what they as individuals think, say, or do cannot matter in any larger context. There are many self-help groups, co-dependent agencies, forms of transcendence-seeking that may be able to help. We are thinking mainly here about rather normal people who just feel out of it, and we are considering the healing power of becoming part of efforts and groups that are not primarily focused on self-help but, rather, on the healing of society and the realization of constructive social values. To be involved in such efforts in a world like ours has a therapeutic power of its own. When people begin to care about others as much as or more than they care about themselves, they often find that what has depressed and blocked them is forgotten, perhaps even removed entirely. As the sage Laotzu has said, "The invincible shield of caring is a weapon from the sky against being dead." What is needed, it seems to us, is a guide for the perplexed among those who really want to see better ways of life for all people, an end to tyranny and oppression, a new effort for peace and justice. We do not need complicated theories of world government and organization for justice and peace so much

Journal of Religion and Health

as we need ways in which each person can begin in his or her own life to follow the leadings of his or her own conscience along paths t h a t lead to wider community and deeper ties of understanding and love among differing people and groups. Our guide for the perplexed would include first of all a rem i nder of what we might call the "Confucian progression 9 The sane and socially useful life moves first through the individual and personal life out to family and friends, then on to small community and village, and eventually to the larger concerns of state, nation, and the world. There must be a kind of basic integrity between one's own personal orientation and one's ideas and actions in the world outside. We are all in some degree hypocrites. We try to look better to the world t h a n in our hearts we know ourselves to be; but the more we are aware of this, the more seriously we must try to bring personal life into harmony with the ideals we profess to love and serve. As Laotzu said: And thus the fitness of one man You find in the family he began, You find in the village that accrued, You find in the country that ensued, You find in the world's whole multitude. How do I know this integrity? Because it could all begin in me. Confucius and Laotzu, the great Chinese teachers, agreed on this approach to things. Therefore, a second part of our guide would emphasize starting small, close to home, in a manageable situation. Sissela Bok is certainly right in her excellent book, A Strategy for Peace, when she advises the person concerned to work for justice and peace: 9 . . to begin in local and quite piecemeal ways, rather than be backing only the most global changes. You have more power to change yourself than to affect others; likewise your influence in your community and your nation will be greater than elsewhere. Yes, you want to see the links between what you do and larger contexts9 But concentrating from the outset only on the least personal and largest problems imaginable almost guarantees that nothing will get done.

Another guideline for the perplexed individual who seeks to express his or her conscience in an effective way is to r em em ber t h a t you do not have to win or lose each encounter. By our thoughts, commitments, and lives we make a statement. T ha t s t a t e m e n t has its effects, whether at the moment everybody follows its lead or not. The peace testimony in our society, like the witness for racial equality, economic justice, and civil liberties, has been present for a long time. Much of it was planted by the founding fathers, and m a n y who

Harry C. Meserve


were before them. It has had its successes and failures, its advances and retreats. We personally may be involved in either one at any given time; and if we have active consciences at all, we know the taste of victory as well as defeat. Sometimes it is hard to tell where we are at any given moment. Some years ago we had the privilege of some acquaintance with Norman Thomas, who was the leader of the Socialist Party in the United States for four decades. That party should never be confused with communism. It was democratic to the core, at times painfully so, for Thomas had the kind of basic integrity that Gandhi had. He would not accept an unprincipled victory. Yet at the end of his career it was possible for him and his friends to note with ironic amusement t h a t while Thomas was never elected to any public office, m a n y of the policies he and his party had advocated had been adopted and accepted by the whole nation: social security, labor's right to organize, civil liberties, racial equality, m a n y of the h u m a n i t a r i a n institutions now commonly accepted, and the basic principle t h a t economic life must be adjusted to needs for h u m a n well-being. All these originated in a small fringe party. Even today the effort to find a humane and workable health care program for all our people remains as one of the goals Thomas and the socialists talked about a half-century ago, when it was roundly condemned as "socialized medicine." If as a social activist you feel discouraged after the first few setbacks, you should ask yourself who you think you are. The great issues do not depend on your satisfaction as a winner or your self-pity as a loser. The test question is not, "Did you win or lose?" but, "Were you faithful? Did you keep your head and your heart sound and your commitment clear and unafraid? Were you part of the problem or part of the solution?" A crucial guideline comes out of Buddhism but serves as well in any religious context or in scientific humanist or agnostic frameworks of meaning. The Buddha advised his disciples to keep three elements of ethical-religious life in mind: the teaching, the ritual, and the community. In all the volumes t h a t have been written about religion, the guides to useful, humane life can be distilled into a few simple statements. If your tradition is Judeo-Christian, you can make do with the beatitudes that Jesus t a u g h t and the two great commands of Judaism and of Jesus: love to God and to the neighbor as the self. "All the rest is commentary." Harmlessness was Buddha's central teaching. We have already noted classic Chinese thought through Confucius and Laotzu. "To care, to be humble, to share," make a fine ethical trinity. The great religions have resulted in almost infinite elaboration, but ethically they come down to principles of mutual help and concern, to love and caring. Even Hinduism and Islam, which seem now so violent in their expressions, teach the same goals and are not, when we think about it, any more violent than Christians and Jews are. Ritual is only a method of reminding ourselves of the truths and meanings implicit in the teaching. We learn to live with formal statements of intent and behavior ritualistically. They become dead and empty only when we for-

Journal of Religion and Health

get that they are "outward signs of an invisible grace." We must supply the inward and invisible grace that gives them life. The community in our language is the church or the temple or the mosque, or the shrine, or any company of h u m a n beings with whom these values and rituals are tested and shared. Religious values have limited meaning unless each person learns to work them out with other persons, test them in practice, revise them through sharing criticism and understanding. The church should be the religious community where people help one another to grow in understanding and effectiveness. A final guideline might be called "readiness" and is well expressed in a comment of Mencius, another Chinese sage: "When you have opportunities to express your talents and abilities, let your beneficence embrace the whole world; when denied such opportunities, just attend to your own well-being."

Harry C. Meserve

What anyone can do.

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