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Robert Peel's new book examines the evidence for spiritual healing

Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age, by Robert Peel. New York: Harper & Row. 203 pp. $19.95. Harper & Row has long been known as a publisher of distinguished books in the field of religion. But Robert Peel's ``Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age'' is something more than a distinguished book. Treatments of the assumptions of our scientific era have abounded in recent decades, and discussions of spiritual healing, while less numerous, have been plentiful. Peel's book is unique in bringing the two subjects together, exploring the relation between current scientific assumptions and the evidence for spiritual healing.

The very term ``spiritual,'' Peel points out in the first chapter, ``is meaningless to many natural scientists today. ... To regard spirit or mind - let alone the Holy Spirit or Divine Mind - as an entity or power operating through higher laws to overrule and alter the perceived mechanism of the physical universe is therefore to invite instant dismissal by a large part of the scientific community. `Where is your evidence?' they quite naturally ask, and often with considerable scorn. That is the question to which the rest of this book addresses itself.''

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The fact that the book addresses this question and its implications so directly shows how venturesome it is. Both the religious and scientific communities, broadly speaking, are concerned with ultimate questions of reality and meaning. But even in our era of cross-fertilization among disciplines, there remains a kind of unspoken agreement separating spiritual or religious questions from factual and empirical ones.

Questioning prevalent scientific assumptions

By focusing on the concrete healing effects of spiritual experience, Peel's book refuses to accept this separation as a given. He not only takes the evidence for spiritual healing seriously, but he also explores how this evidence brings prevalent scientific and medical assumptions into question and, conversely, how these assumptions bear on the knotty questions involved in evaluating the evidence for spiritual healing objectively.

This is not to say that ``Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age'' is any ponderous tome. To begin with, it is a relatively brief book, just over 200 pages. Its first four chapters cover a broad range of scientific, biblical, theological, and medical questions. But they do so in a lively and engaging way, deftly summarizing an array of points that in other hands might be abstruse.

Nor does the book treat its subject in coldly abstract terms. On the contrary, much of its strength lies in the author's clear respect for the fact that healing happens to people in the context of real life. More than half the book is composed of concrete examples of physical healing, mostly in the form of affidavits supplied by direct participants in a healing experience. These accounts deal with a wide variety of medically diagnosed illnesses and disorders. Almost all, however, involve the form of spiritual healing practiced by Christian Scientists.

Implications of spiritual healing

Healing has had a more central place in the Christian Science Church than in any other modern denomination. But the implications Peel draws from these testimonies of Christian Science healing transcend the theology and interests of any denomination. Indeed, they bear on some of the most fundamental questions the age is asking about religion, medicine, and healing - about the very nature of reality itself.

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``Twentieth-century physics,'' he writes, ``suggests reality may be different from that posited by the reductionist, determinist, or `scientific' materialism of the past - and posited still by the biomedical hardliner of today.'' What does the fact of spiritual healing say about this difference? What are the implications for our whole concept of matter, of the medically inexplicable, of changes in bodily conditions documented in the healing accounts included in the book?

Peel comes honestly to grips with the fact that spiritual healing occurs in a life context rather than a scientific laboratory, so that it is hardly even possible to provide the kind of fully worked-up case history that alone would satisfy the demand for unimpeachable ``scientific'' data. Yet he also raises necessary, if uncomfortable, questions about the implicit materialism and reductionism in the ``scientific'' attitude that would casually write off the evidence for spiritual healing.

The purpose of the book, though, is by no means to put down the scientific spirit of critical inquiry, but to introduce the kind of data that the truly scientific spirit must take into account. The book challenges that spirit to take the evidence for spiritual healing seriously, pointing out that ``the same adventurous spirit that has powered this century's scientific and technological triumphs can and must be brought to the fresh exploration of its neglected spiritual resources.''

How (or if) this challenge is taken up may well be a weather vane of our present and future spiritual climate. For this reason, how thoughtfully the implications of this book are assessed - how widely it is read and reviewed, how thoroughly the questions it raises are explored - becomes far more than a literary question.

Stephen Gottschalk is a Christian Scientist who works as an editor and consultant for The Church of Christ, Scientist. He is the author of ``The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life'' (1973) and of articles on Christian Science in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia of Religion, and the Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience.

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