Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 71(3) August 2021

Book Review

The Spiritual Dimension of Alternative Medicine
by Ernest M Valea. Published Resource Publications. 2020. ISBN 978175260504

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan

Book CoverThis is an excellent in-depth analysis of various forms of alternative treatments on offer. I have read several books of variable quality on the subject by non-Catholic writers. To my mind, this is the best on offer written by a Catholic. The author writes objectively and charitably: the sincerity of those who participate in these practices are not questioned.

The chapter on yoga was of enormous personal importance as at the age of eighteen, I seriously thought of converting to Hinduism. Although I still retain a respect for those of this religion, I now see that Christianity and Hinduism are essentially incompatible. The author beautifully illustrates this by quoting from their sacred texts. For example, Christianity sees the human person as a union of body and soul: the body really matters, no pun intended. In contrast, the vital force in Hinduism is the soul. The body is ultimately unreal. Buddhism would take this view one step further by proposing the soul to be ultimately unreal as well. In Hinduism, the soul is analogous to a drop of water falling into the ocean that is the impersonal god. The author refers to this as pantheism. I prefer the term monism or non-dualism. In any case, we see here an enormous difference between Hinduism and Christianity. In Hindu practice, yoga is essentially about gaining divine union by means that has no place for the ideas of sin, salvation or grace. The author has a very interesting section on the problem of re-incarnation from a Christian perspective. Another helpful section deals with attitudes towards visions. In certain forms of yoga, visionary experiences, both good and evil, are encouraged because it is alleged that they can lead to greater divine union. In the Catholic tradition, mystics have always treated extraordinary experiences with reticence and caution.

Anthroposophy was founded by the Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner. For Steiner, mental illness can never be an illness of the self as the self is always healthy. Rather, it is due to imbalances found between our different "bodies". Similarly, back pain and growth retardation are caused by the astral body not sufficiently controlling the etheric and physical bodies. 

Ayurveda is presented in the West as a healing remedy inspired by the ancient wisdom of India but without religious connotations. But once again we open ourselves to following spiritual paths that are incompatible with Christianity. In an interesting section, the author notes that for Deepak Chopra, quantum physics appears to confirm the Hindu worldview because it can explain both the mental and physical aspects of human nature and thus be their meeting point. It does nothing of the sort.

The Reiki technique was formulated by a Japanese Buddhist monk. It claims that a trained healer is able to grant the patient energy that enters through the fourth and seventh "chakras" and not only grants physical healing but spiritual enlightenment as well. We are called to unite the divine self with the great divine light. Once again, this is incompatible with Christianity.

Acupuncture is based on Taoism, the ancient Chinese worldview. Taoism teaches that from knowing ourselves we gain knowledge of the whole universe. The defeat of ignorance is accomplished by living in harmony with the Tao: there needs to be a proper balance between the polar forces, the yin and the yang, inside oneself. This is the essence of ancient Chinese medicine. Again there are warning signs for Christians.

Reflexology was brought to the West by Buddhist and Taoist masters. It is yet another way of channeling the vital energy for it sees disease as produced by energy imbalances. The technique enables the transmission of energy from donor to receiver. It may be argued that the laying on of hands by a bishop when ordaining a priest is something similar. But the bishop does not transmit energy. He is granting authority to the priest. The difference between Christianity and this technique is clear.

The founder of homeopathy claimed that diseases are "solely spirit-like mistunements of life." The cause of disease is said to be the weakening of the body due to the weakening of the vital force. It is the "simple substances" found in homeopathic medicines that heal the vital force, not the raw substances in their lowest possible doses. We are dealing here with a completely different logic from that of science. The belief that a substance can directly interact with the human soul should ring alarm bells for Christians.

This turned out to be a wonderful read. I hope the author will consider an additional chapter on mindfulness in a future edition!