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Religious Communities, Health, and Well-Being
Wednesday March 28th 2018, 9:16 pm
Filed under: medicine and religion,pastoral care,public health

By Tyler VanderWeele

About a year ago I delivered an address at the US Air Force Chaplains Corps Summit on “Religious Communities, Health, and Well-Being.” I was asked to speak as a part of their “Faith Works” campaign that is intended to encourage, when appropriate, the airmen in their faith and to encourage greater freedom in talking about these matters, and to make clear the important role of chaplains in the Air Force and the Military. I talked about some of my own empirical research on how religious participation, and religious service attendance especially, has profound effects on improving health and well-being including the associations between religious service attendance and subsequent greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning and purpose in life, greater life satisfaction, more charitable giving, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.

Much of that address was just published a few days ago in the journal Military Medicine and is available here. I also talked about the implications of the research for policy, religious communities, medicine, media portrayals of religion, and individual decision-making. Due to journal space limitations, however, I was unable to include in the journal article my reflections on the mechanisms whereby religious participation seems to lead to health and well-being, though that too had been part of the address.

I discussed there some of the various potential mechanisms relating religious participation to health, including social support, health behaviors, hope, forgiveness, shared meaning, family programs and support, and the important intersection of and reinforcement between the social community and the religious values and teachings. I also spent some time reflecting on my own religious tradition, the Christian tradition, and how Christian and Biblical teachings on community also shed some light upon why religious service attendance may be so strongly related to health and well-being. In this blog post I would like to share some of those reflections.

Some of the power of the religious service attendance may be the accountability between members of a community. We read in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew that “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” In these instructions, each member of the church is to hold others accountable. This first takes place on an individual level, then within a smaller group, and finally with the entire church itself. The accountability helps with correction for behaviors and relationships that are problematic. It helps bring about change and reconciliation and forgiveness. And forgiveness is in fact also discussed in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, and I noted earlier how important such forgiveness itself can be. But the accountability of religious communities probably also helps, to a certain extent, prevent problematic or harmful behaviors and relationships to begin with, knowing that accountability will be present. This sort of accountability requires communal religious life; it cannot operate in solitary practice. This sense of accountability might not be as strong today as it has been at other times in history, but I do believe it is still present and important.

Another reason as to why communal religious participation, rather than just solitary spirituality, may be so important comes from the letter to the Hebrews. In chapter 10 of that letter we read, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Thus, the community not only holds each other accountable to avoid what is wrong but also is to encourage each to pursue what is good, and to encourage love for the other, the seeking of the other’s good. This seeking of the good, and the encouraging of one another to love, may be responsible for much of the effect of religious services attendance on social support, on lower divorce, on greater meaning and purpose in life, on greater life satisfaction, on more charitable giving, on more volunteering, and on greater civic engagement. Even in the face of struggles and difficulties, communal religious life can help encourage the pursuit of what good and the love of one another. Thus the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells his readers not to give up meeting with one another. Religious services may assist in the pursuit of the good.

Saint Paul’s metaphor of the church as a “body” may also help us understand part of the power of communal religious life. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes in the twelfth chapter of that letter:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable… God has so composed the body… that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually are members of it.”

Each has strengths; each also has weaknesses. In communal religious life, one person’s strengths offset the other’s weaknesses. Through our various strengths, and weaknesses, and the help we provide one another, members of religious communities are supported in religious faith, and in spiritual growth, and in much else as well. And the support is even stronger when the members of the community, as discussed previously, are also encouraging each other in love and in seeking the good. We are thus each supported individually. But the community itself, working together, is able to accomplish much more together than each could individually. These benefits do not come from solitary spiritual practice. They come from community.

But Paul’s use of the “body” imagery is intended to push beyond just being a metaphor. Paul describes the church in his letter as “body of Christ”. The church makes Christ and Christ’s love present to the world and to each other. A similar idea is again expressed in the Gospel of Matthew. If we return again to the 18th chapter of the Gospel we further read that Jesus told his disciples that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” In some deep sense, we experience God himself through religious community and through the Eucharist. The transformative power of such an experience of God is perhaps difficult to quantify and measure, but, if it truly is an experience of God, this may then likewise explain the many powerful effects of religious service attendance on health and well-being. Certainly God is also experienced in prayer and contemplation and in other ways and places, some of which may be solitary, but the communal experience of God, as we have seen, is most certainly given a strong place in Christian teaching. It is important in one’s pursuit of God. It is important to health and well-being as well.

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