April 8th, 2007
Calculous and nephritic complaints,
Some species or states of gout,
Some species of dropsy,
That’s from Saratoga Springs’ 1821 advertising literature. It’s a list of maladies supposedly cured or alleviated by the the famous spring waters of that NY state resort. I read about this in the Atlantic Monthly a few issues ago.
So my first reaction, of course, was: “Bubbly mineral water, that’s all. Snake-Oil.”
Then I got to thinking about it. If enough people believe it, does that make it true? I’m used to hearing, and saying, ‘Hell no.’ What if the answer was ‘Yes’? In matters of faith, I believe it is.
I think a kind of psychic energy accrues around the hoped-for phenomenon, the faith-healer or faith-healing object, whether it’s a spa, a river, a shroud, whatever sacred or magical site or relic or person is supposed to confer health or powers or miracles, and that the more hope and yearning is focused on it, the more potent becomes its very real psychosomatic effects. Buzz swells around the faith-healing object in proportion to the people who swear by it, and the likelihood of people having real, empirically-knowable results from an encounter with the faith-object increases.
Put another way, I have no problem believing that some people visiting Saratoga Springs in 1937 really did have their indigestion alleviated, their skin conditions helped. I’ve known people that were so agitated and nervous as to send themselves to the hospital. You have too. There is no limit to the havoc the mind can wreak on the body. And conversely, no limit to how it can help.
It’s all too easy to lambast these kinds of things as pure evil-hearted humbuggery. And there’s a lot of it around, I’m not saying there isn’t. But a lot of it, if only psychosomatically, has worked. What the Saratoga founders did — and what most well-meaning and inspired faith-healers do — was to strike a wellspring — not of magic water, but of Need. They found a nexus of yearning on earth, tended it, cultivated it, marketed it, marshaled the psychosomatic evidence to its efficiency, and created a phenomenon. I don’t know how many people really came away from Saratoga springs over the last 200 years bettered and more healthful. But I’m not willing to say it was all a gigantic sham. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people returned in a better frame of mind and body. It might’ve been expensive. But what kind of price do you put on health? Especially a diminished “Depraved Appetite”?
But when does it get ugly? When does it turn devious? I believe the answer is — following William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” — when the “fruits” of religion are no longer there to consider, i.e., when the empirically-knowable benefits disappear. Only then can we start to call out the faith in question — like the faith in the healing powers of spring water — to be false.
This is when the false faith-healer turns to lies, sham evidence, distortion, entrapment and other tactics to ensure continued business. Like a vendor who knows his product to be shoddy and who dresses it up in a brand new box and rewords the warranty to allow for no redress.
As long as people are having epilepsy cured and pain alleviated by faith-healers and by exorcisms, and as long as the expenditure in funds or work isn’t bankrupting the believer (in a spiritual or monetary way) then that’s not humbuggery, that’s just the already-demonstrated power of mind over matter, and a proper and respectable business built thereupon. That’s a man or woman (or institution) imbued with savvy, showmanship, charisma and genuine desire to better mankind — if not imbued with powers of Spirit — helping an afflicted person summon from within themselves the power to overcome their own maladies. That’s where the believer’s faith and the believed-in’s authority/skill intersect, and where results — fruits — are reaped.
And if enough people are NOT having pain alleviated, gout cured, depraved appetite diminished, or if the benefits are meager compared to the outlay, then the product sold is false, or shoddy, and a refund is in order. This is either because the authority was weak (maybe the anecdotal evidence was shaky, and that psychic ‘accrual’ I spoke of above wasn’t created — the psychosomatic critical-mass wasn’t hit — or maybe the marketing materials weren’t compelling, the psychic mass of believers not yet at its critical point, the person laying hands nervous and unremarkable, the river of healing muddied or polluted, in some way the service or service provider unskilled or tentative), or the faith was not vigorous (the person didn’t come to the experience believing, open, ready).
And so faith-healing is a transaction that relies on both parties doing their part, just as in the world of commerce and tangible goods and benefits. I have to come to the table with enough money for that cd player, and I rely on the purveyor to have on hand a product or service that works. Just so, a transaction of faith requires that both parties, the believer and the believed-in, have proper supplies on hand: the believer a fund of faith & receptiveness (and in the case of Saratoga Springs, a store of real-life funds), the believed-in a stock of salable and efficacious goods: a safe product with demonstrated ‘fruits’ compellingly sold.
This may seem like a crass way to look at spirituality. I don’t think it is. I believe transactions have always taken place inside our souls and outside them — in the community of church for instance — when it comes to matters of the spirit. People with funds of need and yearning and spirit have always come to trade and invest, and have always relied on people or things of demonstrated worth to trade for & invest in.
What about the vendor then? In a transactional framing of spirituality like this, what do they get out of it? More cashflow is the obvious answer, but not the only one. The spiritual currency obtained fuels the faith healer to keep believing in his or her own gifts. For they, too need to keep believing in the very spiritual boon they’re selling. A flow of believers paying in faith keeps them strong and purposeful.
Is it possible that people who, say, don’t really believe in God could hawk their abilities as a layer-of-hands, blessed-by-god, and still heal humans who come to them with certain afflictions?
Yes. All depending on the ability of the faith-healer to transmit authority, love, power, all depending on whether the outlay is moderate (too much and it’ll weigh on the believer’s mind), all depending too on the believer’s investment of belief at the time of the faith-act. For what the faith-healer is selling is not just the service, but the show of the service. What can psychologically affect the believer and therefore engage them psychosomatically is the combination of their power, authority and human-involvement/love in addition to, say, how and where they place hands. Similarly, it’s not just the water and the bubbles and the warm womb of it, but the marketing materials, the anecdotal evidence, the buzz, the first-hand accounts, the presentation.
So it’s showmanship, is it? Sounds crasser by the second. But again, it’s not crass at all. It *is* artistry, it *is* showmanship. All these are vital components to spiritual transactions. How am I going to invest real and spiritual dollars in something that doesn’t move me, captivate me? Disbelief has to be eradicated, and that’s not going to happen unless the spectacle is overpowering.
The trickiest thing is to see the faith-transaction in light of all this not as depraved, sham, hucksterism just because necessarily it’s involved a certain business-like and showmanship element. That changes nothing about the benefits it’s wrought throughout the centuries. It should help us demystify faith-healing and faith-acts as knowable and understandable through a framework we’re familiar with. And it should help us be more forgiving about other cultures and their own ways of engaging the faithful and helping them to help themselves, psychosomatically, whether its sacred rivers, blessed shrouds, holy pieces of wood, a chunk of britney spears’ bubblegum, or whatever else we look to and swear by in this age.