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Department: Think About It

Holistic or Wholistic?

Editor(s): Schoonover-Shoffner, Kathy

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doi: 10.1097/CNJ.0b013e31829ab052
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For years, Christian nurses have struggled with the term “holistic,” concerned about the alternative therapy view that sees the body as a dynamic energy field rather than an integrated biopsychosocial spiritual being created to live in relationship with God and others. The holistic view of impersonal energy that can be manipulated is incompatible with the biblical view of God as our personal Creator and Redeemer; logically speaking, both views cannot be true (and Christians should be wary of simply renaming the “energy” God or the Holy Spirit [see Christian Nursing 101, p. 138]). To clarify between these two different worldviews, Christian nurses have used the term “wholistic.” Unfortunately, this has led to confusion and perhaps even an “us” against “them” posturing. I witness this confusion and posturing in interactions with colleagues, manuscripts submitted to JCN, and other venues and I wonder, is this distinction helpful? What does it accomplish to use “wholistic?”

Interestingly, the word wholistic (or wholism) can't be found in a dictionary; either you are referred to “holistic” or just can't find it. In some academic fields (sociology, psychology, education), wholistic is used to refer to the idea of addressing all the parts of something simultaneously as in “the whole thing.” Holistic (or holism) refers to the idea that the whole is more than just the sum of the parts. The term represents the sense of interaction and interdependence of the parts; that something is going on with the whole that cannot be understood by knowing or analyzing the parts. A search for articles and books using the term “wholistic” reveals many authors use both terms to mean the same thing, although some suggest holistic encompasses wholistic because holism refers to the interaction/interdependence of the parts, whereas wholism only refers to the whole of the parts. (As you can see, it's maddening trying to straighten this all out.)

If holistic could be understood in this fashion, Christians would have no problem agreeing with and using the term. Indeed, holistic nursing is caring for the whole person, believing people are much more than the sum of their parts. But the term holistic also is used to refer to a worldview that espouses “There is a unity, totality, and connectedness of everyone and everything” (Dossey & Keegan, 2013, p. 71); persons are energy systems with specific centers of consciousness (Chakras) used to channel energy (pp. 417-438). This contradicts a biblical view of the world and people (i.e., Genesis 1, 2; Acts 17:24-31; Colossian 1:15-20). As one explores holistic nursing, other issues emerge that are problematic from a biblical Christian perspective.

So should we continue to try to differentiate between wholistic and holistic? In preparing this editorial I prayed (a lot!) and I polled Christian colleagues all over the country. I wasn't surprised that their responses were almost equally divided. But in the numerous emails and face-to-face conversations I discovered something else. These nurses want to hold out truth, God's truth, and they want to engage with the culture. One colleague said, “We need to hold out truth in an authentic, winsome manner. We don't compromise the truth, but we are gracious and engaging, explaining what we mean and extending God's love.” I thought, how do we hold out what we believe as truth (i.e., disagree), without being polarizing? Then I thought, what is God's real concern here?

The professional term in nursing referring to integrated whole person care is “holistic” (American Nurses Association & American Holistic Nurses Association, 2013). At the risk of offending some, I'm going to suggest Christian nurses use the professional term. When we speak of holistic nursing we explain what we mean, and when it is appropriate, what we don't mean. We keep in mind that our goal is not to win discussions about the nature of human beings or the world or prove our point. Our goal should be the same as God's: To lovingly extend holistic healing to all through the salvation God offers us in Jesus Christ.—KSS

American Nurses Association & American Holistic Nurses Association. (2013). Holistic nursing: Scope and standards of practice (2nd ed.). Silver Springs, MD: ANA.
Dossey B. M., Keegan L. (2013). Holistic nursing: A handbook for practice (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
© 2013 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship