Distance Healing: Internet-Age Religious Healing?

Susan Grey[1] is a 73 year old “distance healer.” Operating out of her South Carolina home, she offers a type of alternative therapy that engages her purported metaphysical abilities, which are not limited to face-to-face contact. She defines herself as a “natural born healer, intuitive and empath,” and boasts a menu of therapies for both humans and animals that includes channeling entities, past lifetime Karma healing, Chakra cleansing, and water crystal treatments.

Susan is part of a larger movement[2] of long-range healers with gifts said to include extrasensory perception, medical intuition (the psychic ability to sense information about one’s bodily condition),[3] and energy healing (the ability to treat energy imbalances using “energy-based therapies”).[4] Made possible by modern communication technologies, distance or remote healing allows ailing or “dis-eased”[5] individuals to access their preferred method of care without leaving the comforts of home. Energy therapies have recently ballooned in popularity; one such treatment, Reiki, is the subject of a new TV series on TLC titled, “The Healer.”[6]

Although there are notable differences between distance healing and so-called “faith healing,” it is also reasonable to question in what ways, if any, the two express a similar spiritually-minded anti-establishment fervor, and even potentially dangerous or predatory behavior. This post will examine the underlying influence of certain social movements in shaping modern distance healing, and how its unique historical legacy and esoteric spirituality has led to striking differences between energy healing and Christian Charismatic healing. For this blog post, I will identify energy healing under the category of “New Age” spirituality, a loosely defined umbrella term used to describe many modern North American religious movements that prioritize individual spirituality whose adherents distrust organized religion (and authority more broadly).


 

If distance healing is a distinctly modern form of religious healing, it isn’t solely defined by its successful utilization of digital technologies to transcend physical boundaries; it also transcends rigid doctrinal structures to create a spiritual garden made up of pieces from both familiar and unfamiliar cultures. This customizable set of beliefs blends and hybridizes themes and practices from multiple faith traditions and secular cultures to build a toolbox of varied causes and cures of ill health.

This melding of pieces of different cultures is evidenced by the way in which Susan Grey evokes Karma, Chakra, archangels, water crystals,[7] and humanistic psychology in her practice. Other healers describe energy-based therapies’ alignment with quantum physics, defining energy as the foundation for all matter in the universe.[8] A number of healers refer to themselves as “shamans,”[9] while others inside and outside the community urge caution,[10] or outright condemn “plastic shamanism” (also, “white shamanism,” “Western shamanism”)[11] as a culturally appropriative commercialization of sacred indigenous rites.[12]

Christian Charismatic Healing

Traditional religious healing outside of Christendom is typically thought of in the context of indigenous religions. While energy healers do claim connections to the ways of indigenous “shamans,” this post is curious about the relationship of alternative forms of spiritual healing that are rising in popularity (i.e., energy healing) to some which are already present in the dominant host culture: one in which Christianity is the preferred religious identity for an overwhelming proportion of the population (70% in the U.S.).[13]

Religious healing in the Christian context involves direct appeals for God’s intervention to improve an individual’s physical wellbeing. The practice is most visible within Pentecostal and Charismatic churches[14] (e.g., Assembly of God,[15] Christian Scientist[16]), those that believe in the renewal of direct human experience with God and the Holy Spirit’s gifts (charismata).[17]

Healing via spiritual rather than medical methods sometimes involves a complete rejection of the latter, a reason for faith healing’s controversial reputation. Parents who prefer to treat their children’s illnesses through prayer rather than medicine will appear in the news now and then when their prayers tragically go unanswered,[18] prompting legislators to call for an end to certain religious exemptions related to juvenile health care, a strengthening of vaccination requirements[19] and laws punishing parents when they do not seek necessary medical care for their children.[20]

Charismatics who believe in the power of divine healing see a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit as the ideal path to perfect health. They deny the prevailing narrative that medicine is the only or most effective cure for one’s illness, abhor the power and immorality of the pharmaceutical industry, and reject the societal position awarded to doctors and scientists as the final authorities on human health. Christian Scientists have their own “nurses” and “practitioners,” who “provide spiritual help” to heal one of any and all possible issues.[21]

Perhaps at the core of this defiance toward secular science is the belief in a moral distinction between Heaven and Earth, that God’s power is infinite and wholly good and that man is corrupted by sin; thus, the products of man are imperfect at best. Or as Mary Baker Eddy (1821 – 1910), the founder of Christian Science, asserts,

“Theology and physics teach that both Spirit and matter are real and good, whereas the fact is that Spirit is good and real, and matter is Spirit’s opposite. […] Sickness has been combated for centuries by doctors using material remedies; but the question arises, Is there less sickness because of these practitioners? A vigorous ‘No’ is the response […].”[22]

Perhaps, by choosing to put one’s trust in man’s medicine, rather than putting their efforts into prayer, they are turning their back to Christ and demonstrating their lack of trust in the miracles of the Holy Spirit.[23] The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church that holds “Divine Healing” as one of its core tenets, includes the following in an online resource,

“Divine healing was provided for in the Atonement. […] Our responsibility is to come in faith and pray, believing that the Lord will raise them up, and that He will perform the miraculous. As a result, He gets the glory.

Years ago when my father was a board member at the Assembly of God in Brainerd, Minnesota, there was a man named Wally Johnstone who had a hideous cancer on his lip. […] The doctors told Wally that the cancer would progress down his throat to his jugular vein and then he would die. Johnstone, a new Christian, was reading James 5:14. He called the pastor and said, ‘Pastor, get the deacons over here and pray for me.’ […]

While they were praying, the cancer fell off Johnstone’s lip onto the floor. He lived to be 92 years old. Johnstone acted on the Word, and the Lord confirmed His Word with signs following as Mark’s gospel confirms. God expects us to obey His Word. Pastors are to pray the prayer of faith, give opportunity for people to be prayed for, and the Lord will heal.”[24]

While distance healers adhere to a distinctly different theology, the distinction between our normal reality and a greater spiritual reality is key, the former being inferior and illusory. Those in society that claim to hold authority over the truth—doctors and scientists in this context—fall into the category of those who buy into a false reality and fail to see the esoteric truth that is visible to faithful Charismatics. This similar countercultural, anti-establishment attitude is also a defining characteristic of New Age movements, out of which distance healing has emerged.

New Age Spirituality: Rejecting Organized Religion & Institutional Authority

First, a disclaimer: most individuals classified as adherents of New Age religions do not self-identify as such,[25] raising questions about the utility of the classification itself. There are additional issues related to defining the New Age movement; scholars disagree on what type of religious expression, if any, the movement embodies. New Age belief systems are notoriously unsystematic, drawn from an underlying set of core features that include individuality, antidogmatism, and minimal organizational structure.[26] These characteristics reflect what Colin Campbell called the general “cultic milieu,”[27] an underground atmosphere of spiritual individualism “united by a common ideology of seekership” that supports the creative expression of esoteric beliefs while working to subvert existing power structures.[28]

The New Age movement’s penchant for absorbing bits of other religions and cultures is reminiscent of Theosophy, a belief system that NRM scholars credit as the parent movement to modern New Age.[29] Theosophy emphasizes mystical experiences that transcend typical levels of human awareness into an unseen spiritual realm and maintains that there are individuals who possess special psychic abilities.[30] Regarding the significance of religion(s), the Theosophical Society of America asserts the following,

“Theosophy holds that all religions are expressions of humanity’s effort to relate to one another, to the universe around us, and to the ultimate ground of Being. Particular religions differ from one another because they are expressions of that effort adapted to particular times, places, cultures, and needs. Theosophy is not itself a religion, although it is religious, in being concerned with humanity’s effort to relate to ultimate values.”[31]

Essentially, Theosophists view the every piece of the world as an expression of “Reality”[32]; distance healers similarly see these pieces in terms of energy. Both worldviews hold that there are multiple paths to the same truth, some of which being the folk practices of what they view as more spiritually connected cultures (e.g., Native American, Indian).

In some ways, modern New Age psychic healers—professionals whose services involve their metaphysical abilities—are not unlike Spiritualist channelers of the past. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering on the belief that people survive death and that it is possible to communicate with deceased persons through mediums (also channelers, mesmerists, psychics).[33] Importantly, Spiritualists affirm that life after death and communication with the dead is proven by science, despite a lack of empirical evidence (let alone scientific consensus) to support their claims.

These influences on the modern New Age movement emphasize a lack of trust in mainstream institutions, which remains today. Many New Age healers do not require scientific validation of their practices (although welcome when favorable and/or marketable[34]). Aligning too much with standard medical science raises questions of authenticity for “alternative” healing approaches, which are entirely conceptually “anti-“ to common practice. Thus, energy healers, in line with the broader New Age culture, find ways to be uncommon by forming their own quasi-standardized corpus of healing knowledge.

Alternative Healing vs. Medical Science

Some healers have claimed the ability to cure terminal illnesses using these psychoenergetic therapy approaches,[35] while others, like Susan, appear to prefer a more cautioned attitude: Susan’s website and email correspondence include a hard-to-miss disclaimer that defines her work as “complementary to medical care,”[36] which is similar to other warnings I have come across while looking into the energy healing community.

While risks to consumers should indeed be taken seriously, the web is already ripe with articles discussing a lack of evidence of the existence of such energy, or “biofield” as it is sometimes referred, and questioning the effectiveness of similar therapies to those used by distance healers like Susan Grey.[37] However, there are also plenty of articles that present the alternative therapy in a more optimistic light, comparing it to acupuncture (now quite mainstream) and offering positive anecdotes and favorable statistics to boost confidence in the effectiveness of energy healing.[38]

However, Susan’s work does appear to have some positive affect on her clients: her website includes dozens of testimonials from satisfied customers.[39] Clearly, energy healing can be a force for good. The question that remains is: by what mechanism? Scholars have hypothesized that faith healing functions like modern mental health counseling. In other words, “religious healing works because it is like psychotherapy, which also works.”[40]

That energy healing works exactly as claimed must, of course, also be considered possible until proven otherwise. However, issues related to what qualifies as proof and who is or is not qualified to make such a ruling is a major problem for members of alternative healing communities, who already choose to subvert establishment science and medicine. Consensus on the validity of energy or charismatic healing is therefore unlikely.

Using Digital Communication Technologies

I recently signed up for a complementary healing from a volunteer distance healer at the Distance Healing Network[41] (DHN). The process was effortless: I filled out a simple web form with my name, age, location, description of my condition, and e-mail address. The next day I received a confirmation email stating that a volunteer would be working to address my migraine as soon as possible. As of writing, the migraine persists. Nonetheless, the painless process involved in requesting my free healing reflects the accessibility of the modern technosphere in which modern distance healing is able to thrive. Without such technologies, it is worth questioning whether or not this specific form of energy healing would be possible, and further, whether energy healing broadly would see the same level of popularity today.

Susan Grey typically does her healing work over the phone, but sometimes she uses videochat services like Skype, which, according to Susan,[42] can be helpful in demonstrating and personalizing “gratefulness prayers” for the client as well as in teaching them to do there own healing work. She says that she doesn’t think one technology is more effective than another, but certain situations may call for a particular medium:

“[s]ometimes when I’m doing my work, especially my sound healing wherein I’m releasing feelings people may have been carrying for a long time, it can be disconcerting for my client to watch my face as it can contort when I’m releasing their feelings. I want my clients to experience the healing without evaluating it. […] I do not do healing by email although I can do some healing on people’s behalf when I get information by email. I do not think the technology impacts my work in a way that it makes it more successful using Skype as opposed to Phone. It is sort of nice to see who I am working with and often they like to see me. Sometime however the anonymity of a phone conversation works better for some people.”[43]

Spiritually passionate individuals in North America that are disenchanted with and/or let down by medical science may have once had just a few options for alternative religious healing treatments. With globalization[44] and the advent of modern communication technologies, these sufferers now have a myriad of options from which to choose. Easy access and no required membership commitment make distance healing a prime candidate. Customers do not need to feel like they have “converted” to the religion in order to receive its benefits. Additionally, because distance healing occurs remotely, even anonymously, any negative social fallout from a failed treatment is minimal.

Is distance healing more or less “dangerous” than the type of religious healing employed by Christian Scientists or the Assembly of God Church? That question remains unanswered (unanswerable?). What is clear is that the practice is theologically distinct, while perhaps maintaining a similar spirit of countercultural zeal. Energy healing, and similar so-called New Age practices do raise a set of questions that are typically not directed at Christian healers: at what point does cultural exchange or modification become appropriation?[45]

 


[1] See http://www.distancehealer.net/about-susan/ for Grey’s professional website.

[2] Importantly, although there are many commonalities among self-described “distance” or “remote” healers (their chosen designation being one example), I suspect that individual healers would likely disagree over dogmatic details (the need for a set dogma probably being one example). For instance, I would imagine that some would whole-heartedly reject the use of the term “dis-ease,” or place more or less of an emphasis on the need to pair distance healing with medical care overseen by a licensed medical provider.

[3] As defined within the alternative healing community; see https://www.thoughtco.com/medical-intuitives-1725021; http://www.femininewisdomacademy.com/distance-healing.html;

[4] As defined within the community; see https://www.thoughtco.com/remote-healing-energy-treatments-1729534.

[5] A term used in the alternative healing community, “in order to reduce the emphasis on the pathology itself and to bring the focus instead to the natural state of ease that [ailing individuals] wish to stress through their therapies and outlook”; https://www.thoughtco.com/dis-ease-1729656.

[6] https://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/the-healer/.

[7] Grey claims her water crystal healing therapy is derived from Masaru Emoto (1943 – 2014), a twentieth century Japanese writer who believed that water held a deep connection to “our individual and collective consciousness.” For more information about Emoto and his theories about water, visit the website that is maintained by his following, which includes the HADO Instructor School: http://www.masaru-emoto.net/.

[8] https://www.thoughtco.com/energy-healing-1729647; See quote by Daniel J. Benor, https://www.forbes.com/sites/courtneyporkolab/2017/11/13/does-energy-healing-work-watch-healer-charlie-goldsmith-and-decide-for-yourself/#76b70c772e1f.

[9] See https://healershaman.com/; http://www.shamanichealingwork.com/.

[10] https://www.shamanlinks.net/blog/define-cultural-appropriation-shamanism/; https://www.thoughtco.com/plastic-shaman-definition-and-overview-2561432.

[11] Harvey, Graham and Robert J. Wallis. “Historical Dictionary of Shamanism.” (2015). p. 164.

[12] http://muse.jhu.edu/article/193#REF4; http://web.williams.edu/AnthSoc/native/natreligion.htm.

[13] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/.

[14] Csordas, Thomas J. The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing.

[15] https://ag.org/.

[16] https://www.christianscience.com/christian-healing-today. “This unique approach to healing has proven effective for generations of Christian Scientists, many times after a medical diagnosis indicated a condition was incurable. Christian Science healing is not faith healing, positive thinking, or self-hypnosis. It calls for Christian faith in and understanding of God as unconditionally and dependably good, to whom nothing is impossible. […] Christian Scientists are always free to choose for themselves and their families the kind of health care that meets their needs. However, by practicing Christian Science, many have lived happy and healthy lives free of drugs and other systems of physical care,” via https://www.christianscience.com/what-is-christian-science/how-can-i-be-healed.

[17] Poewe, Karla O., ed. Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture. (1994); Packer, J. I. “Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement.” (1980).

[18] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/24/nyregion/24heal.html.

[19] http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2015/05/religious_exemptions_from_medical_care_faith_healing_kills_children.html.

[20] http://magicvalley.com/opinion/columnists/jones-children-of-faith-healers-have-a-right-to-life/article_db758987-22e4-562d-9a96-016ebf734519.html.

[21] https://www.christianscience.com/what-is-christian-science/how-can-i-be-healed.

[22] Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. (1875).

[23] Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, said that turning to a doctor for treatment “invites defeat.” See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/24/nyregion/24heal.html.

[24] Trask, Thomas E., “Defining Truths of the Assemblies of God: Divine Healing.” Emphasis added.

[25] Lewis, James R. “Approaches to the Study of the New Age Movement”. In Perspectives on the New Age. James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, eds. (1992).

[26] Frisk, Liselotte, Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, and Siv Ellen Kraft “The New Age.” In The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements Volume II, eds. Lewis, James R., and Inga B. Tollefson. (2016).

[27] Original article: Campbell, Colin. “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization.” (1972).

[28] Kaplan, Jeffrey and Helene Loow. The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization. (2002); Lewis, James R., and Inga B. Tollefson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements Volume II. (2016).

[29] Frisk, Liselotte, Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, and Siv Ellen Kraft “The New Age.” In The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements Volume II, eds. Lewis, James R., and Inga B. Tollefson. (2016) referring to a collection of essays, Perspectives on the New Age.

[30] https://www.britannica.com/topic/theosophy.

[31] https://www.theosophical.org/faq#Q8.

[32] Capitalization intentional; see https://www.theosophical.org/theosophy/theosophy-what-is-it.

[33] Lewis, James R. Odd Gods: New Religions and Cult Controversy. (2001).

[34] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/get-your-esoteric-concepts-into-mainstream-media_us_5a27011be4b0e9b1e032b115.

[35] Dawson, Lourne L. and Douglas E. Cowan. Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. (2004).

[36] http://www.distancehealer.net/.

[37] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/reiki-goes-mainstream-spiritual-touch-practice-now-commonplace-in-hospitals/2014/05/16/9e92223a-dd37-11e3-a837-8835df6c12c4_story.html?utm_term=.cb0cf9a33d0b; http://www.tvovermind.com/tv-news/story-healer-became-tv-show; https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/reiki-fraudulent-misrepresentation/;

[38] See https://www.forbes.com/sites/courtneyporkolab/2017/11/13/does-energy-healing-work-watch-healer-charlie-goldsmith-and-decide-for-yourself/#76b70c772e1f;

[39] http://www.distancehealer.net/testimonials/.

[40] Csordas, Thomas J. The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing, referencing the work of Leighton & Leighton (1941), Messing (1958), and Jerome Frank (1973, 1991).

[41] Visit http://www.the-dhn.org/ for information and to request a free healing.

[42] Susan Grey, e-mail message to the author, December 4, 2017.

[43] Ibid.

[44] See Kaplan, Jeffrey and Helene Loow. The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization. (2002).

[45] http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-628?rskey=zAqy8k&result=1.

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