Niels Christian Hvidt


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Medicinske Mirakler og Teologi

by Barfoed, Marianne

Medical miracles and theology


Is it possible to prove that intercession for the sick can lead to miraculous healing – also when they do not know someone is praying for them? Are such studies relevant in considering if there is a God who can and does interact with human beings when asked? Can medical science and miracles possibly be related in any way?



Lundbeck has chosen to support a research project on these questions entitled Medical Miracles and Theology. The researcher is the Danish  theologian and Catholic, Dr. Niels Christian Hvidt, who holds a doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome where he is currently a lecturer and research scholar. Dr. Hvidt's research will be done primarily in Rome during the next three years.


Dr. Hvidt will not be conducting new studies on the effects of prayer on healing, but rather working with existing material, amongst other things, numerous American studies.


Linq has asked Dr. Hvidt eight questions regarding his research project.


What is the objective of your research?



"I will be doing a descriptive analysis of possible explanation models of interaction between spirituality and health.


There is a widespread view that natural science and theology are two different – opposing – disciplines that cannot be united. The church has often been antipathetic towards science. For example, the church was formerly against anatomical research, because it did not accept dissection of the dead. On the other hand, natural science has often had a priori (thought-based/theoretical) antipathy against any connection between religiosity and science. The scientific camp has often displayed the dogmatic view that religious undertones in natural science made objectivity impossible!


However, there has, for some time, actually been close cooperation between medical science and church in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome and the Physicians' Committee in Lourdes , which both work with investigating ostensibly miraculous healing.


Miraculous healing



The Catholic church has a long tradition of uniting spirituality and science. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, which canonizes specially favoured persons as saints in the Catholic church, employs a test which is to prove the status of a potential saint. It must be demonstrable that God, on the intercession of the (deceased) candidate, has performed a miracle of healing.


To ascertain the authenticity of a miracle of healing, 50 of Italy 's best doctors are associated with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and they assess whether or not a miracle of healing can have a natural explanation. It is not required that these physicians are believers, and appointment as a consultant to the Congregation of Rites is considered the highest professional recognition.


The criteria for miraculous healing are stringent: healing must be complete recovery. There may be no relapses. Healing must be inexplicable in relation to all valid medical science parameters. Cases of healing in which there is a high natural recovery rate are not even considered."


Why carry out a scientific study of the influence of prayer on inexplicable healing? Is it not enough to ascertain that this kind of thing happens occasionally?



"It has long been known that there is a connection between mental and physical health. It has also been documented in numerous connections that persons with a faith have better health than persons who have no faith. In the book, Handbook for Religion and Health (Koenig, McCullough & Larson), there are more than 700 pages of hundreds of studies which point to this fact. The conclusion is that persons who belong to a religious community drink or smoke less, possess greater calm, have better mental health, etc. However, this makes it easy to say that inexplicable healing is merely psychosomatic, that its source is strong personal conviction. This led to the wish to eradicate any psychosomatic effect through new tests.


During the period from 1982 to 1983, Randolph C. Byrd carried out a test involving 393 heart patients at San Francisco General Hospital . As in every scientific test, the patients were randomized in two groups with the aid of a computer: one test group and one control group. There were no differences in the medical treatment that was given to the two groups. Doctors and patients knew that some of the patients were being prayed for, though no one knew who were in the test group and who were in the control group. The only difference between the two groups was that a group of persons who professed faith in a personal God prayed for the test group.


A bomb under natural science



There was an effect. The conclusion that it was a positive effect – was something of a bomb under natural science. Other studies have been made since then, for which permission was given for blind testing, so neither doctors nor patients knew a test was taking place. Permission was granted on the grounds that there are no known negative side effects to intercession. There is more information about several of these studies in the description of the project on my home page:


I have read about these studies, and I am fascinated by the results. I am intrigued just as much by the fact that tests of this kind actually take place, since I see this as a paradigmatic shift in natural science interest in the inexplicable – and because I am inquisitive.


If there is anything to it, then I believe it is a reality in the world we live in – a reality that has consequences for us in the real world. This moves healing of this type from the spiritual dimension into the real world."



What method will you use in the project?



"My main argument is that if there is something to it, we can also have a look at it.



Everything I have dealt with as a theologian has had to do with Divine Action. I consider Divine Action to be one of the obviously interesting theological subjects, and a very significant dimension. As a believer, I think it is the most important dimension, though I would think the same thing if I were an atheist, because the concept of God is very interesting in general.



The natural science studies of the effects of intercession are the basis for my work. These studies publish only results and often finish by concluding that there is an effect, but that it is not natural scientists' task to philosophize on the source of the effect. It is a natural opening to a philosophical and theological discussion to which I can contribute as a theologian.



My project is to perform a descriptive work on the premise that there is apparently interaction between the spiritual and the physical worlds.  Based on the results from these tests, I will do this by investigating and accounting for explanation modes which are divided into four primary groups: 1) Naturalistic Models; 2) New Age Models; 3) Complexity Models; 4) Transcendent Interventionist Models.




There are varying attitudes as to why there apparently is an effect, stretching from the entirely positivistic models to the entirely religious models. According to the naturalistic models, in which the universe follows precisely defined laws which cannot be broken, but, at the most can oscillate between more or less well-known mechanisms before they return to their normal positions, there is no spiritual interaction. According to this model, the surprisingly positive results of investigations of distant intercession are coincidental. It is not possible to work scientifically with a possible religious explanation model, and the thought that there might be a personal God who interferes in the affairs of the world is rejected.


The New Age Models work with the theory that there are different forms of energy in the universe. The effect of prayer is an expression of positive energies which are mobilized by the thought energies of the person praying, like a form of positive telepathic effect. Within the framework of these views, distance healing is mentioned more frequently than distance intercession. One can believe that intercession has a positive therapeutic effect without believing in a personal God.

According to the Complexity Models, the universe normally follows powerful laws. If exceptions take place in the laws of nature, they can be unknown and rarely occurring factors, though nonetheless part of the system. The complexity models operate with the probability theory – there is such and such a probability that a particular law is valid – but precisely this probability is not perfect, which leaves room for exceptions. Here, it is assumed that God can act within these exceptions without breaking any of the laws of nature. The interesting thing is that, within the complexity models, it is possible both to reject and accept the premise of a creative God who acts
out His own designs. Some supporters of the complexity models will consider their theories as sufficient explanation of what we normally call God's supernatural intervention; others will go the opposite direction in what they see as the possibility of Divine Action.

Finally, there are various forms of religious-interventionist models

which all operate with the concept that God, if He is God, can act on the basis of nothing and also heal miraculously when people have sufficient faith. What we normally call intercession – a phenomenon that has been known for millennia in most of the world's primary religions – rests on the premise that intercession before the g[DCM3] od believed in, actually is significant for Divine Action in the world."



As a believer, is it possible for you to maintain scientific objectivity?



"I think it is a misunderstanding that a believer cannot be objective. It is entirely possible to be involved. Many great scientists have certainly been driven by a healthy passion for the subject they worked with; very few are passionless. But one must have a method, critique and systematics. If one says that a believer cannot work objectively as a scientist, it is extremely discriminating and often an expression of a world view that is equally as dogmatizing as the religious view.



One can turn it around and say that scientific method requires investigation of all areas of reality – also the areas that are relevant to the world of faith. If one does not do this, one is obviously in breach of the criteria for objectivity."



Are there miracles in other religions than Christianity?



"Miracles are a fundamental feature in all religious phenomenology. In all religions that involve belief in a god, there is the belief that the god can also intervene and has intervened in this world. If this were not the case, we would be unable to have any knowledge of the god that is the object of faith. One of the elements of this concept of divine intervention is accounts of miraculous events. Therefore, a Moslem will pray to Allah with the same expectation with which a Christian prays to God."



Does it make any difference if the person being prayed for is, for example, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Moslem or an atheist?



"No, nothing is asked of the person for whom prayers are offered."




What kind of result can one expect from your thesis? That intercession, for example, will be used simultaneously with medical treatment?



"Among the studies carried out and published in various mainstream medical journals, many suggest that there ought to be consequences for treatment, because there is a proven effect and, as expressed in the articles, because treatment by intercession has no known side effects and, moreover, is a cheap form of therapy. And if one really wants to help patients, one ought also to use intercession.



This may be on the way. Dr. Robert Zachariae, MDSci, MSc Psychology and now research professor in psychoonchology has, for example, listed 10 suggestions for a road to better health of which the 10th is: find a religion. And this is an expression of the fact that something is happening.



I think people are on the way to becoming more religious. In Denmark , there is a leavening , a sense of longing for a spiritual home."



How did you get into contact with Lundbeck; is there a connection between our speciality, research in the central nervous system, and what you do?



"I have been in contact with Lundbeck since 1999, since Lundbeck was co-sponsor for the writing phase of my book, Mirakler, møder mellem Himmel og Jord (Miracles – Meetings between Heaven and Earth. It was a bit of a coincidence, though when I look at it today, I do not consider our working together as purely a coincidence. There are many intersecting points. I think it is interesting that Lundbeck develops products for illnesses that have major consequences for mental health. Lundbeck does research in illnesses that disable people, and many will certainly experience healing as something virtually miraculous, or, in any case, as a gift from God, even though it is the result of a drug.



Individuals who have experienced miraculous healing are very grateful, but the same is true of persons who have been healed by a drug. The gratitude felt is basically the same, even though the former direct their thanks to a Divine Being.



I am the last person who would say 'either miracles or drugs'. Medical science is an enormous gift from God; I do not think it is a coincidence that the medical profession and hospitals were originally borne forward by religious orders."




Dr. Hvidt's description of his research project is available at: Click: Niels Christian Hvidt Curriculum vitae; then click: Medical Miracles and Theology. There are also descriptions of other studies and tests.




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