According to speakers at a recent Washington Theological Consortium conference, good health could be as simple as a state of mind - a spiritual one, that is.
The link between spirituality and health - including whether prayer can really heal and how the brain reacts to belief - was the focus of discussion at the "Science, Spirituality and Healing" symposium last month.
Dean Hamer, a behavioral geneticist at the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, began by discussing the historical connection between religion and health. Hamer is also the author of the book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes, which suggests spirituality is genetic.
"Before the dawn of the current age of medicine . the predominant healers were, in fact, religious people," said Hamer. "[Jesus] was able to cure leprosy. Buddha was actually said to have been able to restore the feet of someone who'd had them cut off."
Scientific study also shows a connection between health and faith, said Hamer. He cited 42 independent studies showing a correlation between good health and religious belief, and he mentioned that a long-term analysis of people over three decades showed that the religious subjects had better health and that health improved with time.
In The God Gene, Hamer suggests that the propensity for spirituality is a human survival trait that gets passed on through the genes. That the spiritual person has good health is part of that survival, Hamer said in his lecture.
For religious people, having good health could translate into meaning God is on their side. However, Hamer stressed, the job of science isn't to determine whether God exists, but it can examine the physical effects of faith and belief.
In medicine, a classic example of the power of faith is the placebo, Hamer said. Drug studies usually include a sample of subjects who receive a placebo in lieu of the drug. Sometimes the effect associated with the placebo proves to be pretty good medicine, triggering brain and body reactions because the person believes they're receiving helpful medicine, said Hamer.
A recent example of this was a study of a drug designed to increase dopamine levels in the brains of sufferers of Parkinson's disease. Hamer said those who received the placebo in the trial also showed increases in dopamine levels.
"Since someone getting a placebo is operating on faith . this is one test of the power of believing," Hamer said.
The Rev. Walter Shropshire and the Rev. James Wiseman also discussed the connection between spirituality and health at the conference.
Shropshire, a retired United Methodist minister, began by asking participants whether they believe prayer ever helped them obtain anything - from the simple, such as finding a parking space, to the complex, like a cure for an illness.
Considering how prayer really works is something with which humans have struggled for centuries, said Shropshire. However, the way people approach illness must go beyond relying on prayer to gain physical recovery or a miracle cure.
"God always heals but sometimes cures," he said, explaining that being healed can mean that mentally and emotionally, sick people become better equipped to handle what is happening to them, even if that means they won't become physically cured.
"You can be holistically whole and ready to accept the end of your life," said Shropshire, who also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary.
Mental readiness and acceptance of death was also a part of Wiseman's lecture.
Wiseman, a Catholic priest and Benedictine monk who teaches at the Catholic University of America, said that while death is viewed as a defeat in the medical field, Christians must view it as a part of life; as a change, not an end. It is in itself a healing, he said.
But having that attitude, as well as good health in life, depends on the way Christ's life is viewed, and how people treat their bodies, Wiseman said. Jesus as healer is a major part of the Gospels, and the church encourages people to help others in their illnesses, yet "when it comes to caring for one's own health, the picture becomes ambiguous," he said.
The Bible, meanwhile, is clear that people must take care of themselves, Wiseman added, offering some suggestions for maintaining good health for the body and mind, such as practicing yoga and meditation. "It's also a matter of cultivating an ability to stay present with God."