COVID-19 / Leadership Scholars

Defining Health after a Global Pandemic

by Christopher West

In the world of Covid-19, health has become a major topic of discussion and debate within our congregations. It seems that everywhere one goes today, people are discussing public health, health insurance reform, epidemiology, public policy in wake of the coronavirus, and the diminishing health of the American public. The thing missing from our discussion on health is just how to exactly define it. 

This may seem like an odd question. Health, according to the Webster’s dictionary, is defined as, “a person’s mental or physical condition,” or “the state of being free from illness or injury.” In discussing this with a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds, I believe that this is the definition from which most of us operate. 

This definition is too individualistic and not broad enough to encompass the way the term health is often used in particular contexts. In church, we often discuss spiritual health or congregational health– real considerations that this definition does not make the space for. I want to offer two challenges to these modern definitions and urge you to consider how your definition of health might be detrimental to the health of your community.  

Many modern theologians have challenged the capabilities approach we take when approaching health and medicine.  One such thinker worth noting is Gerald McKenny who, in his essay Bioethics, the Body, and the Legacy of Bacon, argued that our questions of bioethics have become far too concerned with performance. By elevating the body, McKenny believes that we have become obsessed with the treatment of disease and the perfection of the human body, thus losing the ability to truly care for those who are suffering. If practitioners and communities are concerned only with fixing the body, then once someone is terminal, they seem a lot less interesting. 

Additionally, our inability to accept suffering as part of the human condition is theologically problematic for the church. After all, Christians worship the suffering Messiah and praise martyrs for their convictions even to the point of death. In this essay, McKenny recommends that bioethicists and practitioners rethink our definition of health and return to asking questions of humanity, suffering and purpose in order to revitalize our understanding of what it means to be healthy. If our approaches to health do not take into account the fact that humans suffer and struggle, then our definition is not encompassing enough. 

Likewise, if our definition is too individualistic, it mis-defines health. In a speech at a conference on “Spirituality and Healing” at Louisville, Kentucky, that took place on October 17, 1994, Wendell Berry challenged the modern conceptualization of health by urging us to consider the communal, natural and social implications of our definition of health. In his speech, Berry argues that health ought to be based on a sense of membership or, in other words, defined by a particular community and the ability to participate. Health, as he defines it, is an unconscious awareness that we belong and are whole. This wholeness extends beyond the individual body to the environment and community in which one lives. We must define health (physical, mental and spiritual) in terms of community and wholeness, not just in the avoidance of sickness. 

In Berry’s own words:
“If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us, then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness in ourselves but also is the sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common. It may be that this double sense of singular integrity and of communal belonging is our personal standard of health for as long as we live. Anyhow, we seem to know instinctively that health is not divided.” 

You can hear echoes of this thought in books like Love Your Enemies by Arthur Brooks or Them: Why We Hate Each Other– and How to Heal by Ben Sasse that are concerned with the dangerous epidemic of loneliness and political division in American public life. 

Both of these works use statistics and public health research to tell us something that Berry hinted at years earlier: One cannot be healthy without belonging to a community. Loneliness and lack of purpose are linked to opioid abuse, suicide, depression and poor overall well-being. These are real issues affecting our congregations that many ministers and lay leaders in our churches do not feel they can address. After all, they do not have a solution and, it seems, neither does anyone else. Not being healthcare practitioners or bioethicists, what role do those of us in the fields of the humanities and religion have in defining or speaking to such major concerns?

Though I haven’t heard much about these issues from the pulpit, I have been inspired in places outside of the Church. Last spring, a summit at UNC Chapel Hill on The Opioid Crisis and the Humanities looked critically at opioid abuse through the lens of a more expansive definition of health. This event, planned by philosophy PhD candidate Joseph Porter and sponsored by the Maynard Adam’s Fellowship for Public Humanities and Philosophy, Politics and Economic Program, brought together poets, addiction recovery specialists, lawyers and advocates to discuss the crisis of opioid abuse affecting our communities. Participants were inspired and empowered to face this very human problem in their own communities, seeing themselves as people helping their neighbors. 

These are a-religious, nonpartisan public university groups sponsoring this conversation that considers humanity, health and medicine. It seems to me that, though it was theologians who urged us to consider the humanity of healthcare and the communal aspects of health, these groups are now surpassing the Church in the ability to think innovatively and creatively about these issues facing our congregations. Where is the Church in this conversation– is your church having this conversation? How do we talk about health in a way that makes room for those suffering?  How do we define health in a way that is inclusive, allowing us to adequately care for those who suffer?

I urge you to consider these questions in light of the challenges posed by theologians. I challenge you to bring this to your congregations, the members of which of are facing the realities of Covid-19, the opioid crisis, and the epidemic of division and loneliness facing American society. Let our churches be places of healing- of the person, the soul, the community.

Chris is a first-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity where he is a CBF Leadership Scholar and part of the Baptist House of Studies. Chris is currently serving as an Oral History Specialist at CBF as part of the Student.Go program to further explore his interest in American religious history. Additionally, Chris works as an archival assistant for the Black Pastoral Leadership Collaboration at Duke Divinity and is pursuing certificates through the Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) program and Office of Black Churches Studies.

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