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

20 January 2013

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?


Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 3: John from Boston

13 January 2013

This is the third post in the Alternative Cosmologies series. As with the first and second posts, the following tale is fictional. Sort of.

John had the world by the tail. He graduated at the top of his class from a prestigious prep school. Harvard was the only college he applied to, and he got in easily. At Harvard, he majored in all the socializing that had been denied him at his all-male prep school. He also got a degree in biology, and graduated at the top of his class again — the third straight generation in his family to do so. Having lived in Boston his whole life, John wanted to get out a little — far enough away to be really away, but close enough to come home for a Red Sox game if he felt like it. With grades as good as he had, he could apply to med school just about anywhere he liked, and he settled on Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he continued to excel, eventually specializing in cardiology.
When he finished school, John wanted to return to Boston, but there were no openings he was really interested in at the time, and he ended up in Omaha for a few years waiting for the right position to open up.
John had…ahem…socialized quite a bit while he was in school, but he always told himself and his various female playmates that there was no time for anything serious. Suddenly he found himself with a real job, whole days off with no exams to study for, in a strange city too far from home. He began to date a bit more seriously. He had always pictured himself marrying another young, upwardly-mobile type like himself, but to his great surprise he fell in love with a waitress named Sally who worked at the diner across the street from the hospital. Their wedding was an interesting cultural experience for both families, but everyone was civil enough. After a couple years, Sally had their first child, a boy, and a year after that, she was pregnant with their second. Meanwhile, the right position opened up in Boston and they moved back to his hometown.

At first Sally was thrilled. She had lived in Omaha her whole life, and she had wanted out since she was in high school. She loved Boston. She loved the museums, the ballet, the swan boats at the Public Garden, taking walks along the Charles River — all of it. John was in heaven. He had his dream job — well, not his dream job yet, since he wanted to be head of cardiology at the hospital — but he was in a good position for his age and experience, his wife was happy, he adored his kids, and he was back home where he belonged. Everything was grand.

But after the birth of their third child, Sally started taking Xanax. John’s family was civil enough, but they weren’t close with Sally, and she was having trouble making friends in the circles John moved in. They had plenty of money, so she could hire a sitter and go to a museum exhibit opening or the ballet, but Boston’s rich cultural life didn’t compensate for her total lack of friends. Desperately lonely, Sally began spending long afternoons on the phone with her mother, sister, and cousins back in Omaha. One night over dinner, she casually asked John if he’d ever thought about moving back to Omaha.

John laughed. “Of course not, baby,” he said. “I never would have gone to Omaha in the first place if I’d been able to get a decent position here at the time. Worked out well for me, though,” he said, grinning at her. “I’m glad I went.”
“Me too, darling,” Sally said, and smiled, and John was so happy with his life that he didn’t notice that her smile never quite reached her eyes.

He noticed a few months later, in June, when Sally took the kids on a six-week vacation to Omaha. He talked to Sally on the phone every night, and he could tell something was wrong, but she didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Sally and the kids came back in July, but it wasn’t the same. John would get home from work and he could tell that she’d been crying.
“What is it, baby?” he would ask, and Sally would just shake her head and change the subject.

One day in October, John came home and found a tearstained note on the table. “I love you, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m going back to Omaha. I know you’ll never be happy anywhere but Boston, but I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m so lonely all the time. I still love you, and I want you to be part of our lives. We’ll work something out about custody for the kids. I’m taking them with me right now, but I’m not trying to keep them from you, truly I’m not. I just don’t want them to think I’m abandoning them. I love you more than I can say. I’m so sorry.”

John sat at the table for a long, long time.

Eventually, he got up, put on his coat, and went out. He had no idea where he was going. He just wandered. It was something to do other than sit at the table and stare at that damned note. For a long time he walked, taking turns at random. After a while, he realized he was tired — so tired — and cold, and he looked around to see where he was. It wasn’t the sort of neighborhood he would ever go into, but he was across the street from a little church. The lights were on, so he went in.

The priest spotted John right away — his coat cost more than any of the parishioners would make in a month. When the service was over, the place emptied out, leaving John sitting alone in the back. The priest, a little Irishman with red cheeks and a boxer’s crooked nose, came back and sat down next to John. He’d been at his work a long time, and he knew that look of desperation. So he just sat silently for a while, being present and feeling John slowly unwind.

When the time seemed right, he turned to John. “So what brings a man like you into my poor little parish church on a 15-degree night, hmmm?”

John tried to lay out the situation rationally, but he started crying as soon as he opened his mouth to talk, and the story tumbled out in pieces. John could never explain how it happened, but he slowly became aware that he was not just talking to the priest — there was a third person with them in the conversation. To this day, John doesn’t remember anything the priest said, but he will swear that Jesus was there with him, hearing his pain and comforting him.
John became a Christian that day. He didn’t become a Roman Catholic — it would have scandalized his (culturally) Presbyterian family — but he would never forget that on the day that he called out to God, God came near to him.

Being a Christian didn’t fix John’s life. At least, not right away. When he didn’t follow her to Omaha within a few months, Sally filed for divorce. But John got some good help, and he did move to Omaha, giving up a promising career in Boston to be near his family, and it didn’t take much effort to persuade Sally to tear up the divorce papers and come back to him. Like Marcus, Daljeet and Chao, John continued in the calling he was in when Christ called him, and became a Christian doctor.

Of course, John’s textbooks said nothing about balancing bodily humors, as Marcus’ or Daljeet’s did. Nor, like Chao’s textbooks, did they teach him to balance the meridian system, nor did they teach him the Daoist history of the universe, in which the emptiness gave birth to fulness which gave birth to Taiji which gave birth to yin and yang which gave birth to the five elements and the whole universe from there. No, his textbooks talked about the Big Bang and evolution, and like Chao it took him a while to think that through and realize that the Bible tells a different story. That aside, John remained primarily concerned with keeping his patients’ hearts healthy, and he delivered the best care he could, prescribing appropriate medications, encouraging healthy diets and exercise, and referring patients for surgery when necessary.

Being in a different sort of society, John was not professionally ostracized for his conversion to Christianity, but he had his own struggles with the paganism in his profession. Two floors down in the same hospital where he worked, they performed abortions. John had been trained that a fetus isn’t really alive in the same way as a person, but one day he ran across Psalm 139, and the more he meditated on it, the more troubled he became. He had certainly loved his own children in the womb, he realized — why wouldn’t God love all children in the womb? And if He did, how could it be right to kill them?

John is still struggling with what it means to be a Christian doctor in the contemporary American medical system. He doesn’t like working in a hospital where abortions are performed, but he doesn’t really know what to do about it, and somehow picketing the third floor doesn’t seem realistic. Some days he doesn’t feel like he’s got any answers; other days, one of his colleagues will corner him and ask him why he handled a particular situation the way he did, or why he’s just a bit different generally, and he’ll have a chance to share Christ. Sally came to Christ a few years ago, followed by all the kids — there are four now — and John loves to gather up the family when he gets home from work and tell them about the doctor or nurse that he got to share Christ with. He’ll tell the story of the conversation, and then they will all pray together for his coworker to come to Christ. John feels pretty good, those days.

John will live with that tension for the rest of his career. He will hope to pass on his accumulated wisdom on the matter to at least some of his children, but none of them will go into medicine. That will be a bitter disappointment to him, but he will make his peace with it in time, and be happy that his children are happy in vocations that suit them. John will live to a ripe old age, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. To his surprise and delight, his oldest granddaughter will be interested in medicine, and John will live long enough to see her enter med school before he dies.


Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 2: Daljeet the Punjabi and Chao of Xian

5 January 2013

The following tales are fictional. Sort of.

Last week we considered the story of Marcus, a physician in second-century Alexandria. Let us consider a set of similar situations briefly.

Daljeet was a physician in the Punjab region of India in the seventh century A.D. Like Marcus, he was well respected in his profession, and like Marcus, in his middle age he converted to Christianity. In his case it was not a miraculous healing, but the simple witness of a spice trader to whom he had extended his hospitality. When he heard the story of Jesus, Daljeet felt like a gong had been struck inside his chest, like he had known the story all along, and had just been waiting for someone to remind him. Like Marcus, he ceased his offerings to pagan gods, but continued as best he could in his profession. Of course, his textbooks were the Charaka Samhita and the Sustruta Samhita instead of Hippocrates and Galen, and he was interested in balancing the three ayurvedic humors (wind, bile and phlegm) instead of Hippocrates’ four humors. Daljeet had a much greater focus on the medicinal qualities of different kinds of food than Marcus, and he was just as likely to prescribe a certain menu for his patients as he was to prescribe a certain herbal medicine — although he could do that as well. Daljeet also had a surgical practice extending from stitching up wounds and removing foreign objects to a form of cataract surgery and even cesarean section birthing if necessary. Daljeet also believed that treating the physical body was insufficient — what a person thought and believed, the words that were said to him and the conditions he lived in could cause as much damage as any injury or poison. So he would do his best to treat the soul as well — and when he came to the Great Physician, he found that his ability to treat the soul took a great leap forward.
Far from suffering because of his conversion to Christianity, Daljeet’s practice saw even more success in the year following his conversion. The stories of near-miraculous healing spread throughout the region, and Daljeet was careful to tell anyone who would listen that it was not Daljeet the doctor, but Jesus of Nazareth, the Great Physician, who was responsible for these healings. The community around Daljeet was at once amazed and scandalized. No one could offend the gods as Daljeet was doing and hope to escape their wrath, and yet, it seemed there was a new incredible healing every few days. If the gods were angry, they also seemed content to sit back and let Daljeet heal people. The stunned amazement persisted for almost a year after Daljeet had been very publicly baptized by the spice trader.
Then one day in the marketplace an overzealous devotee of one of the offended deities attacked Daljeet from behind and stabbed him to death. By the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late, and Daljeet died before they could carry him back home.

***

In the eighth century A.D., a bishop of the Church of the East fell ill while traveling through central China, in what is now Shaanxi province. He was taken to the city of Xian and treated by a doctor there, a man named Chao. The bishop was only there a week, but he struck up an acquaintance with Chao, and the two men corresponded for some years and became friends. Eventually persuaded by his friend’s humility and devotion, Chao became a Christian. He too remained in his profession. His friendship with the bishop gave him access to the Scriptures, so of course he realized that the Taoist story of how the world came to be was false, and he began to adjust his thinking accordingly. Like Marcus and Daljeet before him, he set aside his false gods and worshiped only the true and living God.
Also like Daljeet and Marcus, Chao was interested in restoring his patients to bodily harmony, but he did not seek to do this through balancing bodily humors, but rather by massaging or needling points on their bodies in order to balance the blood and chi that flowed through their organs and each organ’s associated meridians, as he had learned from his medical textbooks, The Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders, and others.
Also like the other two doctors before him, Chao believed that illness could have a spiritual cause like a witch’s curse or a malign deity — such things were not unheard of — but that in general illness was a natural process best treated by natural means. Doctors in his tradition had believed this since before the Yellow Emperor’s Classic was written seven centuries before. In addition to massage and acupuncture, Chao had recourse to a wide array of herbs and foods to address different illnesses, and he also could prescribe certain exercises for his patients that would have the effect of strengthening the function of a weak organ.
Chao’s conversion was not dramatic. Even after he confided in his friend the bishop that he had come to believe in Jesus, it took some time before he ceased making sacrifices, and more than a year before he worked up the courage to be baptized into the Church. Rejected by his family and community as a result of his baptism, Chao lost everything, and one day showed up knocking on the door of his friend the bishop, homeless, penniless and ashamed, with nowhere to go. He had nothing but the clothes on his back, his needles, and a few herbs. The bishop took him in, and from that day forward, the two men were inseparable. The bishop traveled to encourage the churches under his care, and wherever he went, Chao would go and treat the sick. “I will share Jesus with their spirits,” the bishop would say to Chao, “and you see what Jesus will do for their bodies.”
After some years, the bishop felt himself called to go up into the mountains of Tibet as a missionary. He told Chao that it would be quite dangerous, and that he ought to stay behind. “My friend,” Chao said, “If it is going to be dangerous, you had better take a doctor with you.” The bishop took several months to anoint a successor and set his affairs in order, and then, commissioned by the people of the diocese, the two men set off on the long and dangerous journey. No one knows if they ever made it to Tibet, and if they did, how they fared there. The two men were never heard from again.


Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 1: Marcus the Alexandrian

29 December 2012

The following fictional tale is part of a thought experiment that will take a few weeks to develop properly. Stick with me; I promise it will be worth it.

Marcus was a doctor in Alexandria during the second century A. D. His internal medicine practice was largely concerned with balancing the four bodily humors (fluids) — blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile — in order to prevent or cure disease. He had diligently studied the writings of Hippocrates, Galen and others, and understood that disease was a natural process which a doctor could only assist. In order to ameliorate the disease and assist in hurrying it along toward healing, Marcus used massage, herbs, and other methods.

A cold, for example, was the result of an overabundance of phlegm, perhaps brought about through overexposure to the cold night air. The cold air cooled the lungs, and thereby the heart, which is the very center of a person. Attempting to protect the lungs, the body produced a great abundance of phlegm, which now needed to be brought back into balance with the other three humors. Marcus knew which herbs to use internally, which to apply as poultices, and so on. Marcus also understood which gods the patient ought to make offerings to, but he had noticed over his years of practice that the gods tended to ignore minor cases and preferred large offerings in any case. If the cold progressed to pneumonia, he would tell his patients, that was the time to invoke the gods — and in that event, it was best not to be cheap about it.

In addition to his skills with herbs and practical theology, Marcus was also a capable surgeon. He could remove tumors, treat hernias, and on occasion would even drill a small hole in a patient’s skull to relieve pressure and headaches. Some time in the army had also given him ample practice closing wounds and removing arrowheads.

Marcus was not always successful — no doctor is — but in general he enjoyed a good rate of success and there were a number of people in the city who attributed their continued life and good health to his ministrations.

And then, at the age of 45, in the middle of his career, Marcus himself became sick with the plague, and try as he might, nothing he did would cure him. One of his servants, who happened to be a Christian, begged him to allow Christian holy men to come and pray for his healing. At first Marcus refused. He was a doctor, learned in all the medicine of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Persians! What might some fleabitten hermit following that Nazarene criminal have to offer him? But the servant continued, plying him with story after story of how people were healed through prayer, begging him not to be so stubborn, and by this means eventually prevailed. The servant ran out of the house and shortly returned with a group of men that he described as the elders of his ecclesia. They surrounded the bed, anointed Marcus with oil, sang some hymns and prayed for healing in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Despite his doubts, Marcus was instantly healed.

Marcus didn’t know what to do. Of course, he had to become a Christian — and wouldn’t his friends think that was entertaining — but beyond that, he didn’t know what he would do for a living. How could he go on being a doctor when he couldn’t heal himself? How could he prescribe herbs when it had been the prayers of a servant, a rug merchant, a field laborer and a potter that had healed him? Not knowing what to do, he went back to the men who healed him and asked them.

“Let each man remain in the same calling in which he was called,” they told him. Someone named St. Paul had written this in their scriptures many years before. He should remain a doctor. After all, one of Paul’s companions, St. Luke the evangelist, had been a doctor, and had not St. Paul himself referred to him as “Luke, the beloved physician” in his letter to Colosse? If St. Luke had remained in the profession, then surely Marcus could also. Of course, the men cautioned him, he must have nothing more to do with other gods. The idols of the Greeks and Romans were demons, and although they could work miracles of their own, it was for the purpose of damning souls to hell. From now on, Marcus must serve only Yahweh — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Marcus left the conversation a little fuzzy on whether he was serving one God or three, but he got the general idea. He continued practicing medicine, prescribing herbs for the balancing of the four bodily humors, performing surgery when it was called for, and commending prayer to Jesus Christ as the Great Physician who can heal any disease, no matter how small or how desperate. Marcus was subject to considerable mockery for this, and was eventually kicked out of the trade guild over it, because he was unwilling to participate in the guild sacrifices to pagan gods. Many of his patients refused to see him any longer, and a number of the merchants he depended upon for supplies refused to do business with him, for fear of the guild. But Christ had taught him, “Freely you have received; freely give” — and so although he sometimes lacked for patients who could pay, he never lacked for patients, and the Lord always seemed to supply him with just enough of the necessary herbs and implements to get the job done.

Over time, several young Christian men came to him to learn. They were unable to apprentice themselves to anyone in the guild, because like him they were unwilling to participate in the guild’s pagan sacrifices. However, Marcus was happy to teach them all he knew. Each of them spent at least ten years with him, learning all the healing properties of each herb, how to balance the bodily humors, how and when to use each surgical implement, and much more — everything he knew about the practice of medicine, and as he grew in his Christian faith, everything he knew about serving the Great Physician as well. By the time he died at a ripe old age, there were five capable doctors, unrecognized by the guild, who took his place and continued his work, each man expert in his craft and a diligent servant of God.