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Melanie Dobson: Health as a Virtue

Melanie L. Dobson, Health as a Virtue: Thomas Aquinas and the Practice of Habits of Health, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), xiv + 146 pages, ISBN 9781620325612.

With the rise in obesity among adults and children globally, it is not surprising, perhaps, that American Christians struggle with obesity and its resulting health problems. This culture of allowing oneself to go and ignoring one’s vitality is deeply embedded in the church; however, the premise of this book is that healthy habits are part of the moral life, and by practicing these habits, Christians can live a more faithful life with God. Health isn’t just a concern for the overweight, however. Humans also suffer from chronic illnesses unrelated to nutritional deficits. Dobson’s work acknowledges that chronically ill persons still desire to live healthful lives and flourish in their spirituality to every degree possible. This book explores ways in which Christians can achieve holistic flourishing through practicing health as a habit. The author explores and interprets what Thomas Aquinas has to say on the topic of health as a habit in his Summa Theologiae.

Title page from a 1596 edition of Summa Theologiae.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The book is divided into two parts. The first part (chapters one to eight) is the theoretical framework laying out health as a virtuous habit to be pursued. Relying on Aquinas’s writing on the virtues and health and his appropriation of Aristotle’s teaching on the virtues, Dobson shows how we can view health as a virtuous pursuit with the end (telos) in God. Chapter seven, in particular, zeroes in on the practical application of healthy habits that lead to a flourishing (eudaimonia) of individuals in their relationship to self, others, and God. Chapter eight considers why believers should cultivate habits of health. The goal of healthy living isn’t for the sake of health itself but, more importantly, for the sake of God. In other words, “the love of God becomes the end (telos) of health practices.” Health as habit is defined as the ethical intention and effort to live lives that lead us deeper into love with God and neighbor. Dobson asserts that Aquinas believes Christians have a responsibility to practice healthy habits.

By focusing on holistic health that includes exercise, eating well nutritionally, and spiritual practices, pastors and missionaries reported a greater flourishing in their interactions with others.

The second part (chapters nine to 11) covers two case studies conducted with pastors and missionaries, examining these individuals’ pursuit of a more holistic, and thereby virtuous, lifestyle that includes a focus on healthy habits. The pastors interviewed by the author reported the challenges they faced in their congregations not only with the expectations placed on them by themselves and parishioners to sacrifice self for the good of the community but also the unspoken, but palpable, opposition they faced from congregations as they sought to improve their wellbeing through exercise, healthy eating, and preserving personal time. Pastors also reported feeling unsupported by their denomination due to the institutional structures that move ministers frequently and place often less-experienced ministers in isolated communities. Dobson shows how these individuals were able not only to improve their health, in most cases, but also to improve (i.e., strengthen) their ministries. By focusing on holistic health that includes exercise, eating well nutritionally, and spiritual practices, pastors and missionaries reported a greater flourishing in their interactions with others.

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2017

About the Author: Michelle Vondey, Ph.D. (Regent University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), has more than twenty years’ experience working in non-profit organizations. Her interests are focused mainly on developing followers in their roles in organizations. She teaches courses in leadership, critical reasoning, and Christian discipleship. 2012 dissertation LinkedIn

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