Spiritual Disciplines: The Body and Health at Canadian Union College

by Deane Nelson

An unusual group of buildings on a hill, in an otherwise largely rural countryside, is visible from Alberta Highway 2 near Lacombe. This is Canadian University College (previously named Canadian Union College), which was established in 1907 as the Alberta Industrial Academy, but is now operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While it is the only Adventist post-secondary institution in Canada, CUC belongs to an Adventist sisterhood of three universities and nine colleges in the United States. CUC offers a variety of programs in the three divisions of Arts, Science, and Professional Studies. These programs integrate the Seventh-day Adventist philosophy of health and spirituality into their objectives and ideals, as they seek to enable students "to achieve the divine purpose for their whole being, which includes not only their intellectual capacities but also their physical, social, vocational, and spiritual dimensions."1 For example, its sister institution, Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California, is well known for its medical expertise, as well as its integration of spiritual care with the practice of health care.
 
 Seventh-day Adventism emerged from the major Protestant bodies in mid-19th-century America through belief in Saturday as the biblical Sabbath (hence the "Seventh-day"), and in the second coming of Christ (hence the "Adventists"). At the time, ignorance of health principles was so widespread that nearly every home had sick people. Customs, diet and sanitation were not favourable to healthful living. Strong drugs and opiates were used freely, while little attention was given to the causes of disease. Adventists thus found that health reform was a vital issue. It is important to point out that even though many of the health principles advocated by the founders of Adventism were far in advance of their time — writings about the perils of the use of tobacco (1848), the importance of cleanliness and the value of non-rich and unrefined foods (1854), and the misuse of drugs (1864) — their importance lay in the relationship of health to the church's understanding of the Gospel:
 
We do not profess to be pioneers in the general principles of the health reform. The facts on which this movement is based have been elaborated, in a great measure, by reformers, physicians, and writers on physiology and hygiene, and so may be found scattered through the land. But we do claim that by the method of God's choice it has been more clearly and powerfully unfolded, and is thereby producing an effect which we could not have looked for from any other means.
 
As mere physiological and hygienic truths, they might be studied by some at their leisure, and by others laid aside as of little consequence; but ... it comes to us as an essential part of present truth, to be received with the blessing of God, or rejected at our peril.2
 
Thus the gospel of health becomes vital to the Seventh-day Adventist philosophy and is placed in equal importance to other beliefs. Underlying the educational emphasis in the church is a strong concern for the prevention of disease and the maintenance of good health. Personal health habits are an observable aspect of the life of a Seventh-day Adventist. Most abstain from the use of alcoholic beverages, tobacco and dangerous drugs. The Old Testament prohibition against the use of unclean meats is strictly followed, and many Adventists are vegetarians. Studies among Seventh-day Adventists show that the risk of death from diseases such as lung cancer, bronchitis, emphysema, coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and traffic accidents is lower for Adventists than for persons of corresponding age and gender in the general population. Life expectancy at age 35 for Adventists has been found to be six to seven years greater than for the general population. The longevity of Adventists is strongly related to the differences in personal health habits. Hence the church runs community programs concerned with smoking, diet, weight control, physical fitness and other health-related services. These are often strongly linked with the evangelistic mission of the church.
 
 Seventh-day Adventists believe that the body is a "temple of the Holy Spirit." The college takes seriously its commitment to healthful living. The cafeteria provides wholesome, lacto-ovo vegetarian meals prepared in a variety of international cuisines. The physical education program encourages physical fitness through activities designed to meet a variety of needs for its participants. Students, faculty, staff, and the public are encouraged to make use of the 25 metre pool, saunas, weight training centre, gymnasium, racquetball court, nature trails, athletic field, outdoor ice rink, several lakes and a rock climbing wall.
 
The association of the body and health at Canadian University College is strengthened through the belief in the holistic nature of humans. Unlike the ancient Greeks and some contemporary beliefs, a person is not understood as a dichotomy of body and soul. Instead, a person is seen as a multi-dimensional unity of body, mind and spirit. Whatever affects one area of humanness, whether it relates to the physical, mental, social or spiritual dimensions, affects the total being. Hence, every activity recognizes the blending of the total person. This is particularly noticeable in the uniting of spiritual disciplines with the total educational experience. This recalls the early pioneer in Adventism who wrote that "health ... comes to us as an essential part of present truth, to be received with the blessing of God."3 Body and health is experienced at CUC in the total package of Christian education. Hence students, faculty and staff can sense the presence of God in the "body" of campus life. All have the opportunity to experience the goodness of the universe in the daily interactions of humans with a vision and a mission in life.