The study surveyed a large body of research on three topics: (a) Christian ministry and pastoral counseling, (b) complex relational and family trauma, and (c) complementary and alternative medicine. The topic of this study is—The new age of Christian healing and spirituality: A meta-synthesis exploring the efficacy of complementary therapies for adult survivors of familial trauma. It is rooted in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory (FST), which describes the natural order of a family system. FST mirrors the biblical mandate in Genesis 2:24, “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one” (New Living Translation; Mitchel & Anderson, 1981). Attachment theory describes the maladaptive intimacy patterns that arise from these initial bonds with one’s parents and live on through an adult survivor’s marriage and parenting (Lowyck et al., 2008).
Isobel et al. (2019) stressed the clinical utility of defining familial trauma to include psychological trauma that happens in the context of meaningful relationships. They suggested interpersonal, relational, betrayal, attachment, developmental, complex, cumulative, and intergenerational trauma all under the umbrella of familial trauma. Isobel et al. asserted that trauma that occurs in familial relationships of attachment has a more profound and complex impact than single incident non-personal trauma. Failure to acknowledge the complicated overlap of terms could lead to a lack of clarity in practice and diffusion of the evidence base. The consequences of familial trauma include lifelong changes in neurobiology, comorbid conditions, revictimization, relationship struggles, and pathological views of self and others. Adult survivors experience shame for both the trauma they have endured and what they have become as a result (Isobel et al., 2019).
According to Hann-Morrison (2012), healthy marriages and families result from adherence to this process of moving from one’s birth family to family-of-choice. Conversely, family trauma happens when this natural order gets disrupted due to parental substance abuse, enmeshment, parentification, abuse, mental illness, divorce, abandonment, and attachment failures. When emotional intimacy gets hindered in the initial stages of infant attachment, the repercussions can last long into adulthood. The mother’s job is to help the infant learn the appropriate balance between closeness and distance to the birth family. Each dyad in a family system needs to balance and harmonize with the rest of the system to have appropriate emotional balance (Hann-Morrison, 2012).
The overarching narrative of the Bible is essentially the story of God’s attachment with humankind and humanity’s failure to reciprocate God’s love and intimacy (Knabb & Emerson, 2013). Jaebong and Kwajik (2016) liken the family dysfunction of Jacob in the Bible to Bowen’s family systems theory. They found Jacob to be experiencing low levels of differentiation. Differentiation is the ability to emotionally separate from one’s family of origin. He was also the subject of intergenerational trauma and triangulation. Jacob experienced emotional reactivity and high levels of family-related anxiety. This biblical understanding of the correlation between family systems theory and the families of the Bible can help church families understand their dysfunction through the lens of family systems theory (Jaebong & Kwajik, 2016).
Dayringer (2012) described pastoral counseling as an integration of faith and psychology where the pastoral counselor’s goal is to engage in a ministry of healing with the distressed. This discipline is a recent movement rooted in the spiritual care the church has provided since its inception. Pastoral counselors obtain a myriad of certifications and get included in the referral context of a medical team. The bond between a parent and child will mold the child’s relationship with God as well. Pastoral counselors are tasked with helping congregants reconcile a correct understanding of what it means that humans are made in the image of God. Their role stands in stark contracts to Freud’s attempts to pathologize religion (Dayringer, 2012). McClure (2010) found the exploration of feelings within the context of families, self, and interpersonal relationships to be the current primary focus for pastoral practitioners.
The fall represents the initial attachment failure remedied through the resurrection of Jesus (Genesis 1-3). The Bible accounts for stories of family trauma in people such as King David, Joseph, and Abraham. David was ignored by his birth family and later persecuted by his father-in-law Saul (1 Samuel 19:2-3). He struggled with relationships and behavior issues as an adult survivor (2 Samuel 11:1-27). Joseph was betrayed by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery (Genesis 37:28). His position as his father’s favorite could have constituted an inappropriate emotional closeness barring on enmeshment. Abraham tried to take the trauma of infertility into his own hands through the birth of Ishmael, which created a divided family with Hagar (Genesis 16:8).
Complementary therapies encompass an array of non-verbal or non-traditional interventions. Schouten et al. (2015) found that the non-verbal alternative of art therapy in trauma treatment resulted in a significant decrease in trauma symptoms across multiple treatment groups. Carr and Hancock (2017) advocated for the effectiveness of art therapy, specifically in developmental trauma. Church et al. (2013) found the emotional freedom technique (EFT), a somatic and cognitive PTSD intervention, helpful in reducing PTSD with long-term effects. Sebastian and Nelms (2017), likewise, found EFT to be an efficacious treatment for PTSD without adverse effects. Finally, Halberstein et al. (2007) found flower essences to potentially reduce high-situational anxiety.
There are many questions regarding both the efficacy and mechanism of action present in complementary therapies (CTs). Berkley and Straus (2002) stressed the importance of including CTs in the family therapy treatment process (2002). Varambally and Gangadhar (2020) described regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, enhancement of GABA neuro-transmitters balance of the autonomous nervous system, and neuroendocrine balancing as the methods of action that cause yoga to be healing for trauma. Cabral et al. (2011) conducted a meta-analysis that concluded that yoga therapy is an effective adjunct intervention for PTSD. Furthermore, they found that yoga therapy could relieve symptoms that failed to respond to psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. Goyal et al. (2014) conducted another meta-analysis that could not find substantial results of meditation in treating trauma symptoms. Vancampfort et al. (2012) found yoga therapy to be a helpful add-on treatment for reducing psychopathology as a whole. Such findings prove vital for the discerning pastoral counselor when deciding whether to endorse CTs in the context of Christian ministry.
Mechanism of Action
A common question facing pastors today involves the mechanism of action responsible for the success of these eastern practices. Gerritsen and Band (2018) explained the mechanism of action that makes mindfulness and meditation healing. The vagus nerve is a central part of the autonomic nervous system that gets toned during contemplative practices. This balance of the autonomic nervous system is what catalyzes trauma healing and mental health benefits. The use of controlled breathing and guided attention are the underlying reasons for the success of these practices (Gerritsen & Band, 2018). Boyd et al. (2018) found that mindfulness-based treatments for PTSD restore connectivity between brain networks within those who have PTSD. In this regard, it appears that pastors have no spiritual qualms regarding the roots of the practice. Instead, the mechanism of action should withstand judgment from the discerning Christian.
Complementary therapies hold to this concept that a universal life force exists in all sentient beings. This biofield itself is neither Christian nor non-Christian but seems to be a common subject at the core of mystic spirituality. Meditation, yoga, and Reiki attempt to heal the spirit of the person. In this regard, the spirit of humans is unable to be owned by a single religious tradition. The field of transpersonal psychology delves into this concept of non-religious spirituality in great depth, yet pastoral counselors have historically avoided this psychology of spirituality almost entirely (Bidwell, 1999).
What seems interesting to Christians is that the elusive nature of Buddhism and Hinduism are fundamentally different in their approach to religion. In a sense, their innate spirituality creates a dynamic that lends itself to adoption by more systematic and well-formed religious doctrines. In a way, it seems as if religion evolved from the works-based God of the Old Testament Judaism to the works-based karma and reincarnation of Hinduism, to the no-self and enlightenment approach to Buddhism, to the grace-based and mercy system of Christianity. Only Christ offers sufficient grace to overcome the totality of the sin, or Maya, of the human condition. So, if one defines something to be decidedly Christian by something being related to Christ, is it possible that most practices could point toward or away from Christ? Is the nature of the spiritual practice or the practitioner’s direction that makes something Christian? Can yoga be Christian any more than Christmas became Christian through appropriating pagan practices?
Mental-health providers can discourage the use of CTs because they get thought to be dangerous or a waste of money despite an abundance of empirical data suggesting otherwise (Gulden & Jennings, 2016; Hull et al., 2015; Mohi-Ud-Din & Pandey, 2018; Pence et al., 2014; Sears & Chard, 2016; Uhernik, 2017). There is often little recourse for less authority on the topics that disagree with these authority figures (Jain, 2014). Patients and practitioners of CTs often struggle with little recourse against conservative pastors, theologians, and allopathic physicians who control processes like ordination and medical board licensing who deem CTs quackery or demonic.
Although these opinions are valid and often well-meaning, the purpose of this study is to eliminate the use of individual authority as the determining factor of whether consumers and congregants should utilize CTs or not. This study attempts to remove the traditional gatekeepers who decide that CTs are demonic, fads, or quackery. Instead, the goal is to provide consumers and congregants direct access to the contents of the empirical research data to make informed decisions regarding the medical and theological place of CTs in their familial healing journeys based on the data. For this reason, human participants were not recruited for this study.
There appear to be three emerging positions for the Christian use of CAM in the context of healing family trauma:
- One position suggests that all Christians should avoid it because it is apostasy based on other religions. This position uses an appeal to authority to condemn the practices. It begins with the premise that CAM practices are all fundamentally
Hindu or Buddhist. They are frequently religious and medical experts who appoint themselves to label and denounce heretics and quacks based on the dissenter’s lack of academic or church authority. This same power differential existed between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church. They often view those who practice CAM as second-class Christians who have given into faddism. This position assumes these practices are innately Hindu and Buddhist and therefore unredeemable.
- The second position advocates for the Christian adaptability of CAM due to the mechanism of action being religiously neutral and therefore adaptable like fasting. Fasting is spiritually advantageous to many religions without being the intellectual property of one. It is presumed to be the property of the public domain. The proponents are often Christian mystics and spiritualists interested in the spiritual and emotional healing benefits of CAM. These types of Christians historically have adapted Christmas and Easter to make them point toward Christ. They promote the practices as more beneficial than not practicing them based on the proven benefits of the methods. They avoid defining the approach as fundamentally Christian or non-Christian. They tend to use terms that reflect this adaption, such as Christian yoga instead of Kundalini yoga. This position advocates for the adaptation of the incompatible Hindu and Buddhist aspects of CAM as essential because we might be receiving Hindu and Buddhist-adapted CAM
- The final position suggests that Christians can and should practice CAM without accommodation. These practitioners self-identify as equally Christian and Buddhist
or Hindu. They advocate for the practice of religious multiplicity regardless of the evident intellectual contradictions involved in this type of post-modern thinking. These thinkers are more common in transpersonal psychology and liberal Christianity than in conservative circles. They tend to see those who concern themselves with the rigid theological dogmas of Christianity and other religions as close-minded or unenlightened. This position advocates that Christians can practice post-modern religious pluralism and therefore do not see the Hindu and Buddhist adaptations inherent in modern CAM as a problem for Christians
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Brees, Amanda Lynne, “The New Age of Christian Healing Ministry and Spirituality: A Meta-Synthesis Exploring the Efficacy of Christian-Adapted Complementary Therapies for Adult Survivors of Familial Trauma” (2021). Doctoral Dissertations and Projects. 3168.