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Do medicine and theology mix?

By Trisha Elliott

Ever since Jesus said, “I was sick and you looked after me” (Matthew 25:36), the church has been in the health-care business: running hospitals, offering community health education, visitation programs and chaplaincies. But starting with the scientific revolution in the 16th century, the dialogue between the disciplines of theology and medicine has deteriorated. Today, there’s a new-found pulse.

The field of bioethics has expanded since its inception in the 1960s, and in the last two decades, studies proving that religion is good for your health have burgeoned. So much so that physicians are now being trained to flex their spiritual muscles. In 2004, the GWish (George Washington Institute of Spirituality and Health) Canada Initiative was formed to develop a strategy for integrating spirituality into all medical schools and residency programs in Canada. So far, several programs have done so, many of them in Alberta.

Our neighbours to the south are further ahead: in 2008, 67 percent of American medical schools offered courses in spirituality, up from two percent in 1992. “Anyone who gets sick is going to experience their illness not in terms of numbers and biology but in terms of the things in their life that actually matter, that are being threatened, by the potential for loss, by the questions that they may have never asked before about their world view as they feel their body become frail,” explains Dr. Ray Barfield, a pediatrician from Durham, N.C., in a lecture called “Arts, Medicine and Theology” posted online.

When illness presents, existential questions multiply: What is health? What does it mean to live well within our bodies? How do we make sense of suffering?

“You need something outside of medical science to make sense of those very basic questions,” says Dr. Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and co-director of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative at Duke Divinity School, over the phone from his North Carolina office.

Kinghorn says Christian communities can learn from modern health-care practices. “I am a psychiatrist, for example, and I think there are traditions of wisdom within psychiatry that are very important. Traditions built over decades, centuries even, of collective experience of what it means to sit attentively with those who suffer. These can offer insight into how we work as human beings.”

The diagnosis? Medicine and theology should talk more. Faith communities have a crucial role to play in the dialogue: serving as partners in assisting marginalized people to access health care; helping clinicians develop a vocational vision for their work; supporting chaplaincy efforts; and providing a refuge for the mentally ill.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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