A Specialized God
WCIU Journal: Worldview Topic
March 5, 2018
by Dan Poenaru
This post is part of a longer article published in the Health and Disease Topic.
Role of the Mission Hospital and of the Church
Today’s mission/church hospitals are appropriately poised to address illness and disease, yet in the process they have, often unintentionally, re-defined health more narrowly as the “absence of disease.” This is a stark departure not only from their historic understanding of shalom, but also from the WHO definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity” (World Health Organization 1946). Missionary and national doctors do their tireless doctoring and report on patients who were operated on, cured, or died. Chaplains, on the other side, do their daily rounds praying for patients, and write monthly “spiritual” reports on numbers visited and “saved.” Through routine and habit, the two disciplines seldom meet. The result is fragmentation, professionalization, and, ultimately, poor care.
A Specialized God
This missed opportunity in Christian health institutions is representative of a larger problem besetting our churches. It reflects a gradual degradation of the church from a living, thriving body of believers connected through all spheres of life on earth into a social club gathering offering a very specific, and limited, range of “spiritual services” such as marriages, burials, childhood and adult Christian education, and the like. Within this specialization, the focus and expertise of the church becomes getting people to heaven, while their earthly problems, including health, are relegated to the appropriate other experts and professionals. This perspective may be a natural consequence of what Paul Hiebert referred to as the “flaw of the excluded middle” – a modernist worldview which relegates God to heaven, regular life to earth, with nothing to fill in between (or at least nothing for the church to concern itself with) (Hiebert 1982). The great, universal “Eloheynu, melech haolam” (Hebrew for “Our God, King of the World”), the God “greater than all other gods” (Exod. 18:11; 2 Chron; 2:5; Ps. 135:5), has, over the millennia, “shrunk” back to the size of the specialized Canaanite deities, able to assure victories in battles and eternal life but “needing help” from others in the health arena (Loewen 2000, 106; Poenaru 2010, 13-14).
The African Setting
In the African culture and tradition this “divine specialization” (Loewen 2000, 95-101) is particularly concerning. African (traditional) religion is both complex and holistic, “An essential part of the way of life of each people. Its influence covers all of life, from before the birth of a person to long after he has died” (Mbiti 1991, 15). Already home for myriads of specialized spiritual entities clamoring to fill the (spiritual) “middle,” the African worldview easily adopted Christianity and its God as an expert in the afterlife and morality issues, quickly concluding that He is not to be “bothered” or even trusted in daily affairs such as health (Loewen 2000, 92-93). Moreover, the African animistic worldview, including elements such as taboos, witchcraft, and fatalism does not appear to be conducive to development (Ampadu 2009, 113-17).
Ampadu, Chris. 2009. Correlation between African Traditional Religions and the Problems of African Societies Today. In The Goal of International Development: God’s Will on Earth, as It Is in Heaven, edited Beth Snodderly, 107-20. Pasadena, CA: WCIU Press.
Boulenger, Delphine, and Bart Criel. 2012. “The Difficult Relationship between Faith-based Health Care Organisations and the Public Health Sector in sub-Saharan Africa.” Studies in Health Services Organisation & Policy 29: 1-232.
Hardiman, David. 2006. Introduction. In Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa, edited David Hardiman, 5-58. New York: Editions Rodopi.
Hiebert, Paul G. 1982. “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” Missiology: An International Review 10 (1): 35-47.
Kagawa, R. C., A. Anglemyer, and D. Montagu. 2012. “The Scale of Faith-based Organizations Participation in Health Service Delivery in Developing Countries: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” PLoS One 7 (11): e48457.
Loewen, Jacob A. 2000. The Bible in Cross-cultural Perspective. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Mbiti, John S. 1991. Introduction to African Religion. 2nd ed. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.
Poenaru, Dan. 2010. “The Incredibly Shrinking God: Parallels between the Diminishing God of the Old Testament and of Modern Christianity.” Module 1B Research Paper for William Carey International University, Pasadena, CA, March 25.
Swartley, William M. 2012. Health, Healing, and the Church’s Mission: Biblical Perspectives and Moral Priorities. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Winter, Ralph D. 2009. The Fifth Expansion. In Foundations of the World Christian Movement: Course Reader, edited Ralph D. Winter and Beth Snodderly, 215-18. Pasadena, CA: Institute of International Studies.