Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 4: Cashing It Out

So what do we learn from the tales of Marcus, Daljeet, Chao, and John?

A perfect cosmology is reserved for heaven. In the meantime, it’s okay to use whatever knowledge you have, subject to the Lordship of Christ, to do good in the world. It is better to heal people by balancing the four humors to the glory of Christ than it is to sit on your thumbs and let them suffer.
Every cosmology has some cleaning up to do. The evolutionary cosmology John was taught in the modern West is no more godly than the pre-Christian Greek, Indian, or Chinese cosmologies.
A historically conscious conservative will point out that the roots of the Western scientific cosmology are not pagan, but Christian. He’ll be right, too. But whatever it was in 1600, it’s not Christian now. This same conservative will protest that it is too Christian in its root presuppositions, and proceed to back it up. (See Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science for an excellent argument of this kind.) That’s all true, but it’s kinda irrelevant at the level we’re talking about. The fact remains that a guy like John can enter college as a secular pagan, and leave med school the same way, and neither he nor his instructors think Christianity has anything to do with it. It is, for all intents and purposes, a pagan education that produces pagan graduates. In fact, as we well know, a significant number of Christian kids that follow that same educational track lose their Christian faith as a direct result of their education. So let’s not be prattling on about how it’s all Christian at its roots. Not so you’d notice, it’s not.

So let’s cash that out in terms of some contemporary problems.

May a Christian go to college, then to med school? Is it lawful?
I believe we are all prepared to say yes. For some believers who are weak in their faith to start with, it may not be wise to subject themselves to John’s educational track, but it is lawful. We would have no problem with a strong Christian undertaking the task — we would just tell him to “eat the meat and spit out the bones.” Many do, and there are some outstanding Christian Western medical doctors today.

Is it okay for a Christian to become an acupuncturist?
Why not? Well, says the conservative Christian, clearing his throat, for starters, the whole thing is based on a pagan worldview. Of course, that same conservative Christian will cheerfully take out a second mortgage to get his kid through Western med school — why the double standard? Well, let’s be honest, the problem is more xenophobia than it is theology, isn’t it? We’re fine with homegrown paganism — it’s that foreign stuff we can’t stand.

Let’s just admit from the outset that a Christian who is going into a medical field will have to weed out the paganism intrinsic to his education — in 2nd century Alexandria, 6th century Punjab, 9th century China, or 21st century America. But this is just to say that the Kingdom of God has not yet come; shall all Christians refuse to be doctors on that account? Of course not.

We look forward to the day when this is not the case, when it is impossible to attend an anatomy or physiology class without hearing the professor occasionally break into a spontaneous song of worship as he lectures on the genius of Yahweh’s design of the eye, or the Krebs cycle, or the biotensegrity structure of the spine. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

In the meantime, Jesus rules everything, and therefore it is our Christian duty to retake that territory, to root out the paganism, and to subject the practice of medicine to the service of Christ its king.

As no less an authority than Augustin once put it:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel.”

In sum, when a pagan has a truth that he is setting to a pagan use, we must not shrink from that truth because a pagan has it. The devil has planted his flag on that truth and claimed it for his own, but he is the Father of Lies, and we must not believe him. Instead, we must take that truth from him, and put it to its right use: the glory of Christ and the manifestation of His Kingdom here on earth. “Thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.”

So once we’ve set aside our xenophobic aversion to the Yellow Peril and embraced our Christian duty to reclaim any truth for the service of Christ, what objections do we have left?

Mostly what we have is concerns about whether oriental medicine works, or whether it’s all just so much hokum. These concerns break into two categories. First, are the descriptions true? For example, is there such a thing as chi, and does it really run through channels in the body? This question is more complicated than it first appears, because Chinese medicine simply doesn’t approach the subject the same way Western medicine does. The Chinese concept of ‘organ’ is about a bundle of related functions, not about a certain physical structure. There’s a good argument to be made that “chi” doesn’t even mean “energy” to start with, and that it’s meant as a metaphor rather than something that literally flows along a certain channel. And so on. It’s a very different language and culture, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done before most Westerners, even serious investigators, will be ready to say that we understand what the classical texts of Chinese medicine are really telling us about the body.

Second, whether the descriptions are true or not, do the therapies work? The therapy can work even if we can’t explain why it works, or even if our explanation is completely wrong. Ptolemy was wrong about why the moon went around the sun, but he could still predict the next eclipse. Of course, of course, we’ve heard the occasional story of a near-miraculous acupuncture healing. Even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then, and every supposed therapy has the occasional spontaneous healing. Unless the treatment is downright lethal, if you subject enough people to it, someone is bound to get well eventually. But does it predictably, repeatably work? Do the therapies of Oriental medicine actually cause people to get well?

That’s a good question, and it’s far too big to tackle in a blog entry. For one thing, asking “Does Oriental medicine work?” is like asking “Does Western medicine work?” What are we talking about? X-ray imaging? Angiogram? Setting a broken bone? Ritalin? Thalidomide? Oriental medical practice, like Western medical practice, is a compendium of therapies. Undoubtedly it will be the case that some are effective and others are not. Both Chinese and Western doctors, for example, set broken bones so that they will heal correctly. Clearly setting broken bones is an efficacious therapy. But what about acupuncture for the constellation of symptoms that a Western doctor would call diabetes? Will that work?

Good question. Of course, it’s still too general. “Does needling the Yi Shu point in thus and such a manner alleviate the symptoms associated with diabetes?” might be a better question. As it happens, there is evidence that it does, but that’s not the point.

The point is that when we’ve passed up all the theological objections to participation, and come down to the simple question of whether or not it works, we have come to a place where good Christians may disagree. When a devoted Christian who believes in the efficacy of acupuncture gives his life to alleviating suffering through acupuncture, there is no ground for calling his Christian faithfulness into question. Should it turn out that he’s scientifically wrong about this treatment or that one (or even about acupuncture as a whole), that’s bad, of course — but it’s no worse than a Christian Western doctor prescribing leaches in 1785, or giving a pregnant woman thalidomide for her morning sickness in 1959, or prescribing Baycol in 2005. Or giving Ritalin to a little kid today — but there I go, injecting questions of efficacy into the discussion again. Would we subject that doctor to church discipline for prescribing Ritalin? Of course not — good Christians can disagree on that. Seems it’s not only Oriental medicine that’s controversial, eh?


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