Wednesday 29 September 2010

Christianity provides medicine with a whole person perspective

When I was medical student I was required to write an essay on the nature of man.

The secular world has developed many different models for human beings. There are psychoanalytical models like that of Sigmund Freud who saw man as the product of a complex reaction between superego, ego and id. Then there are the behaviourists like B F Skinner who see human beings as complex stimulus-response machines. Then there are the physical anthropologists who see man as simply a clever monkey, and finally the biochemists who see man as nothing other than a complex chemical reaction, the product of matter, chance and time in a universe without meaning or purpose.

All these views are 'reductionist' in that they reduce man to simply the sum of his individual parts.

As doctors we know that the biochemical, anthropological, behaviourist and psychoanalytical models are all useful in understanding how human beings function. We learn our biochemistry, physiology and anatomy because we know that human beings are physical entities. We learn our psychology, social anthropology and sociology because we know that human beings are more than just physical entities - they need to be understood also as thinking entities existing in relationship. We learn our philosophy and religion because we know that human beings ask deep questions about morality, purpose and destiny. Human beings are also spiritual.

Biblical Christianity teaches that human beings are a complex unity of spirit, soul and body; and that these elements together form an inseparable whole. We can be understood in physical terms because we are made from physical elements, but we are more than just physical beings. We have souls and spirits too, and these three parts of our natures – body, soul and spirit - interact in a complex fashion.

We know that our physical health has profound effects on the way that we think, and that illness causes us to ask questions about meaning and purpose. We know that the mind can also affect physical health in the case of psychosomatic illness. We know that major life events like bereavement or divorce can have profound effects on our health.

If we treat our patients simply as physical bodies we will be doing them a gross disservice. It is true that they have physical bodies and that they may need their biochemistry corrected, their physiology normalised and their anatomy realigned.

However they are also souls enmeshed in a complex set of relationships and spirits asking serious questions about hope, meaning and destiny. These factors have profound implications for health and need to be addressed too.

Jesus Christ healed physical illness but he also restored broken relationships, forgave sin and reintroduced people to their creator.

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