Toward an Adventist Theology of Health (7) -- An Ecological Lifestyle

The category of Lifestyle presupposes at least six important components: continuity, perspective, proactivity, totality, renewability, and interactivity.

  • Continuity, because the generous actions in promoting health cannot remain isolated or sporadic. They must be integrated into consistent habits that convince by their permanence and regularity. A healthy lifestyle is more a matter of constant trend rather than the artificial aggregation of heroic but sporadic actions.

  • Perspective, because health is not merely a matter of numbers and disciplined behavior but necessarily includes a vision able to wake up an existential movement of curiosity, involvement, and trust in the intrinsic resiliency of every human body. A lifestyle is not a matter of right or wrong but has to do more with the capacity of illuminating life with new possibilities of meaning.

  • Proactivity, because a transforming health vision uses a sequence of limited and transitory decisions chained together to make visible the possibility and the miracle of health. No action is by itself resolvent and conclusive. The task of a good action is just to initiate with trust a fragile and paradoxical journey of healing.

  • Totality, because health cannot be selectively affirming without denying itself. All levels of existence must be included in this affirmation of life and health even though the results at these various levels may often be asymmetrical and paradoxical. Partial and sector-specific health can mark the beginning of a healing process but not the final result.

  • Renewability, because life is continuously facing new challenges that make necessary a reformulation and a recasting of its options in order to update itself to new circumstances. A definitive and absolute lifestyle is a contradiction in terms. Health is always a relational process that includes not only a specific person but also seriously takes into account the changing socio-cultural environment.

  • Interactivity, because a lifestyle can never be identical with the health principles it acknowledges as valid and in which it is rooted. At best, it can pretend to be a good interpretation and plausible application of them but not those principles themselves. These principles interact with other noble and competing interpretations with which one needs to constantly dialogue.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Interestingly, health is not defined here as just the absence of disease. This definition provides a tough corrective to the classical definition of health in purely physical terms. But it still has the deficiency of being too static and non dialogical. Lifestyle is an open process that includes steps and strategies put in place to achieve optimum health. Healthy Living is about taking responsibility and making smart choices for today and the future. Eating right, getting physically fit, emotional wellness, spiritual wellness, and prevention are all part of creating a healthy lifestyle that is necessarily open and experimental. But lifestyle is also necessarily dialogical. In this sense there is not any one universal Healthy Lifestyle. There are many possibilities based on different competing principles or on different interpretations of the same principles. But we must discern that not all pretended healthy lifestyles are necessarily such. This is the reason why lifestyle is the “way to health” between affirmation and humility, coherence and confrontation, conviction and critic. The self-proclaimed “best” Lifestyles and their opposite, minimalist ones, distort by excess the beauty and simplicity of a healthy living.

Adventism has made an enormous contribution to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle. And its strength includes a double strategy. A first one is “from above” because Adventism has been able to articulate an illuminating and creative connection between some general Biblical principles and exploit their potential power in orienting human behavior concerning health issues. This is the case, for instance, of the understanding of the body as “Sanctuary” of God. Not uniquely in ethical terms, as the immediate literary context suggests (I Corinthians 6:19) but also in a health-related perspective. And this fact not only enlarges the scope of the verse but also opens up new ways for understanding God himself. In this Biblical passage, in fact, God is implicitly described as being able to inhabit, beyond our actions (ethical), also our own body (ecological). And this pushes back against the “body-as-machine” understanding, the implicit and diffuse presupposition of today's medicine. The beneficial opacity and mystery that a correct understanding of the body should always have is thus preserved. The second strategy is “from below” because Adventism has also created some consistent anthropological approaches to promote health. One of them is vegetarianism, not a philosophical or speculative concept but an incarnated action. In fact, Adventism has instantiated this unique model in people. And it has rendered it socially inclusive by opening it up to everybody and everywhere. It has rescued common people, giving them back the sense of respect, nobility, and flourishing. And by making the redemption visible in the body, at least partially, it has also enhanced trust in the possibility of overcoming other forms of alienation as well in different areas and levels of existence. But Adventist vegetarianism is not a Biblical one; it couldn’t be.  Rather, it is a winning anthropological strategy. It was partially inspired by some Biblical motives but is fundamentally based in a visionary cultural reading of our present world, initiated by our pioneers, whose positive implications we Adventists are still not fully aware of.

But, as with any theological and anthropological health-related project, Adventism also has its own paradoxes and contradictions. We Adventists are mistaken when we consider our health model unique and definitive. This mistake often pushes us to isolate and detach our model from the positive interaction with other models, and, what is worse, it ends up diminishing the potentiality of our own project. Here a double medical category can be of help for understanding that a winning model must necessarily be dialogical and experimental. From a genotypical (genetic makeup) perspective, our model is rather well equipped, as I tried to show in the previous paragraph. But being genotypically rich still does not guarantee the development of a successful phenotypical (observable physical characteristics) profile. The paradox is that poorer genotypic structures, if accurate and forward-looking, can manage to build up valid phenotypes as much as richer genotypes, if isolated, inaccurate and short-sighted, may end up creating weak phenotypes. In order to create a convincing health model, not only genotypically but also phenotypically, we then need to learn to perceive the limits and short circuits of our model by putting it in contact with different, alternative models. Cultural isolation and pretended absoluteness produce impoverishing lifestyle proposals. Let us give a rapid critical look at three representative traits of our health model: holism, voluntarism, and individualism.

1. Holism

This is probably the flagship of Adventist lifestyle. We have, since the beginning, denounced and fought the misleading conclusions of anthropological dualism. The reason is that dualism has historically led to disregard the body and overvalue a disembodied spirituality. We have instead created a health approach that also paid attention to the body as an important catalyst of human existence and religiosity. We made our own Juvenal’s motto “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a sound mind in a sound body), but we transferred the importance of the body's well-being for the well-being of the mind, to the religious dimension. We have been very successful in doing this.

Dualism still exists today in updated and sophisticated forms, but science and the cognitive disciplines are no longer dualistic but rather monistic (Pannenberg), even if they reject the reproach of giving form to some kind of reductive physicalism (Maturana, Varela). Thus. we need to diversify our argumentation as we are no longer fighting dualism alone. And above all, we need to correct our holism that has remained entrapped in its anthropological form. Our holism is an anthropological holism not an ecological one. It is very limited because it tries to include just the body in the health equation but not other important human dimensions like the emotions. In fact, our holism is very rational and pragmatic. But the main criticism of our holism is that it does not include a trans-personal dimension –- our environment. That is visible in the reasons that undergird our vegetarianism. These are clinical, dietetic, or health-related reasons alone.

2. Voluntarism

Our lifestyle also has a strong pragmatic stance. This has pushed us to consider sickness not as destiny but as something that can be modified. All our preventive approach to medicine and health is based on this presupposition. It has given our health model an incredible dynamism and an unprecedented vocation and capacity for change. But it has also led us to consider health as the pure product of a medical rational strategy and not as a gift. Even the noble category of resiliency has been interpreted in ethical and pragmatic terms as the capacity of resisting and fighting until the end. Thus, we have created a contractual understanding of health and lifestyle. And this pragmatic model ends up generating more uneasiness because it infuses stress and anxiety that are the triggering mechanisms of numerous diseases. Resiliency is not a voluntaristic category for fighting, at any cost, for preserving health but a witnessing category of acceptance and trust in the capacity of life to keep living, notwithstanding a partial irreversible loss.

3. Individualism

Another important component of our lifestyle is personal responsibility. Health cannot be delegated to third parties. Nobody will do for me what I need to do myself. Personal assessment, personal awareness, personal decision, personal courage -– all are essential for reaching health. This category, together with the previous one, has changed traditional conformism and passivity toward sickness and human tragic destiny, typical of most humans. Health is in your hands. But this attitude has also led to building a self-referential understanding of lifestyle. And the paradox is that health and healing are instead relational experiences. Just being together with and for others, making some concessions, some compromises, is the first step toward healing. Others are not obstacles or distractors but rather allies and facilitators of our own healing. To be or to remain detached from others is the beginning of a process of psychological and physical deterioration.

The enormous positive elements and potentialities of our lifestyle must today be re-articulated and re-formulated in a larger ecological context. And we need to perceive the fact that the limits and short-circuits of our model paradoxically tend to emerge in the virtuous parts of our model. For this reason we cannot limit ourselves to just adding something new, but we must dare to reframe it throughly. This is the challenge ahead of us.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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Sat, 01/21/2017 | San Diego Adventist Forum
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