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New Geographies of Religion and Healing

States of the Field


Photo by Linda Barnes.
Satin yellow cover for a Sutra book in the Gold Mountain Buddhist Monastery in San Francisco, CA.

I take my title from a classic essay by T. J. Hinrichs who, over a decade ago, mapped critical developments in her own field, the history of Chinese medicine.1 Hinrichs flags, for example, a movement away from an almost exclusive reliance on documentary research to the integration of perspectives and methods from other fields, including a sensibility that privileges “contradictions, ambiguities, resistance, and the marginal spaces of life over system, coherence, and elite versions of culture.”2 Indeed, such an approach is necessary because there are as many ways to interpret and study religion and healing as there are approaches to religious studies.

In one sense, this assertion should come as little surprise. After all, the one can reasonably be considered a subset of the other and therefore open to interpretation through the full spectrum of its disciplinary methods. Second, there is a natural point of intersection between many, if not most, religious and therapeutic traditions insofar as each addresses, interprets, and constructs responses to the experiences of suffering and affliction.3 Third, the study of religion and healing permeates the larger discipline. However, because an explicitly defined subfield has been long in the making, it is rare that scholars have the opportunity to get a handle on the full range of fine work that has been accomplished.

Photo by Linda Barnes.
Sutra book entitled, Medicine Master Buddha Repentence, in the Gold Mountain Buddhist Monastery in San Francisco, CA.

I am reminded of a visit I made years ago to the Gold Mountain Buddhist Monastery in San Francisco, California. The meditation hall housed long, low tables with meditation benches. Before each place, a sutra book rested on the table, covered with bright yellow embroidered satin.

After asking permission to lift the fabric, I discovered that the cover of the sutra book read “Medicine Master Buddha Repentance”.

This example has struck me many times as a classic illustration of how matters of healing often lie just beneath the surface of the religious. Lift the cover and there they are. In the following essay, I shall review new geographies of scholarship representing a range of foci and strategies under the rubric of religion and healing. My examples are in no way comprehensive but, rather, suggestive. As I shall show, in addition to the map not being the territory, the territory—such as it is—sometimes seems to call as much for charts to navigate shifting waters as it does for the tools of the surveyor.

I have organized this review of the field in the following manner:

  • 1. T. J. Hinrichs, “New Geographies of Chinese Medicine,” Osiris, 2nd Series 13 (1998): 295. While attempting to include scholarship from around the world, I will focus some sections of this article on work within the United States. Because of my own work in the study of Chinese medicine and healing traditions in the United States, it may seem a peculiar omission, but this essay will not incorporate resources related to these traditions as these can be found assembled and discussed elsewhere. I refer readers first to the discussions and source materials provided first by Hinrichs, “New Geographies.” Second, for treatment of sources related to Western perceptions and interpretations of Chinese healing arts, see Linda L. Barnes, Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts: China, Healing, and the West to 1848 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005). For some of the most current scholarship on the broader topic, see T.J. Hinrichs and Linda L. Barnes, eds. Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, in press [Spring 2012]), In press (projected publication, Spring 2012).
  • 2. Henrichs, “New Geographies,” 295.
  • 3. We arrived at this formulation independently, but for an eloquent discussion of this point, see Arthur Kleinman. “‘Everything That Really Matters’: Social Suffering, Subjectivity, and the Remaking of Human Experience in a Disordering World,” Harvard Theological Review 90, no. 3 (1997): 315-35.
Linda L. Barnes, PhD, MTS, MA, is a religion scholar and medical anthropologist. She received her PhD in the comparative study of world religions and in medical anthropology from Harvard University. Previous publications include Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts: China, Healing, and the West to 1848 (2005); Variations on a Teaching/Learning Workshop: Pedagogy and Faculty Development in Religious Studies (1999); and co-edited volumes Religion and Healing in America (2004), Teaching Religion and Healing (2006), and Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History (in press for 2012), as well as articles in leading medical anthropology journals. Jointly appointed as an Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, and the Division of Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University, she co-founded and directs BUSM's M.A. Program in Medical Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Practice, which includes a track in the study of religions, medicines, and healing. She is currently writing a cultural history of Chinese medicine and healing traditions in the U.S. from 1849 to the present, for which she has interviewed over 300 practitioners from a full range of cultural backgrounds throughout the country.