The value of religious faith in the practice of medicine.  Delivered to students at the Virginia College of Oseopathic Medicine, Spartanburg, SC, earlier this year.

Faith in medicine? Why does it matter? I’ll tell you a couple of reasons.

Let me qualify, this is not about evangelism and it is not a crusade. I am a Christian, but you may not be. Nevertheless, you must attend to the three things I am going to mention.

First, it matters because of your humanity and that of your patients. You’re just starting your journey, full of love and goodness and hope. But It matters because humans can be difficult. ‘Check yourself!’ Stabbings, abuse, shootings, overdose, lies. It matters because doctors can be difficult and we need to recognize that. To assess ourselves soberly. ‘You check yourself!’ The rant in the mud and blood. My ‘take it to the parking lot’ attitude.

Next, it matters because however difficult they are, they’re wonderful and beautiful. And however beautiful and wonderful, they’re difficult and sometimes dangerous.  It’s easy to spout platitudes about serving humanity, and it’s even easier when humanity is sweet and gentle and appreciative.  It becomes harder when humans, like doctors, are ugly, angry, uncooperative, resentful, hateful and violent.  Faith teaches us to overcome the problems of humanity in ourselves and in our patients.

Faith also matters because 0f suffering. Biology doesn’t answer suffering. Darwin for all his insight doesn’t answer suffering. This is not to disparage Darwin. It wasn’t his purpose. Neither does chemistry or pharmacology or anatomy or surgery or emergency medicine or oncology. All of those are things to manage or describe suffering. Why suffering? I have some answers, but they lie in theology. You must have some answers. It is part of your job to comfort your patients (as we comfort those we love most, often simply by loving them). But you must answer suffering for yourself. For I believe that much burnout is an excuse to excuse ourselves from the presence of too much suffering. I am not entirely convinced it is wrong to do so.

Finally, faith matters because of hope. What can we offer outside of temporary relief? What can we offer the young mother with life altering cancer? The parent of the dead child? The terminal diagnosis, the lifelong disability, the endless pain? If this world is naturalistic, meaningless, devoid of purpose, then it is doubly hurtful.  It is a horrible thing to experience suffering and then to conclude that perhaps nature is just weeding you out as either less fit or of no further use.

Can you find hope for yourself? Can you give hope if someone asks?

Here are some quotes and insights that have been of value to me.

“There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
G.K. Chesterton

“What a chimera then is man. What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error: the pride and refuse of the universe.”
Blaise Pascal

Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.” G.K. Chesterton

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”  G.K. Chesterton

“God is love.  That is why he suffers. To love our suffering world is to suffer…The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love.  So, suffering is down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is.  Suffering is the meaning of our world.  For love is meaning.  And love suffers.  The tears of God are the meaning of history. ”

Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who lost a son in a climbing accident.

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at that time seemed especially desolating and painful. I now look back upon them with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence has been through affliction and not through happiness whether pursued or attained. In other words, I say this, if it were possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo-jumbo, the results would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the cross signifies and it is the cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.”  Malcom Muggeridge

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”  C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’

I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.” C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory.’

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory.’

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