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Unhealthy future

Are we losing the Christian concept of healthcare?

-Phil Burcham-

Previously i have explored how Christian attitudes likely shaped a key feature of the healthcare sector within societies where the gospel put down deep roots – at some level it furnished the moral vision needed to produce medicines that alleviate human suffering. This endeavour was sanctioned by Scripture itself and especially the famous Parable where Christ commended the rudimentary pharmaceutical efforts of the Good Samaritan by proclaiming “Go thou and do likewise.”

Hence, from a perspective shaped by Christian ethics, any search for new medicines is fueled not by the prospect of financial profit nor the desire to “conquer nature” in the name of science, but mainly proceeds as an act of loving service to one’s neighbours struggling with pain or ill-health.

Nowadays the view that Christianity did nothing for our world except breed intolerance and obscurantism has sadly become reigning orthodoxy, hence the role Christian values played in shaping many key cultural endeavours is overlooked.

To take a wider view upon how much modern healthcare owes the Christian worldview it helps to explore various “medicinal motifs” within major literary works that are revered across the Church spectrum. Hopefully, this will show how deeply Christ’s “Therapeutic Injunction” pervaded the Christian moral imagination.

For example, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the 17th century Puritan masterpiece, after surviving his violent encounter with the “foul fiend” Apollyon, Bunyan’s great protagonist took leaves from the Tree of Life and “applied [them] to the wounds he had received in the battle, and was healed immediately.”

Similarly, in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie receives a Christmas gift comprising a vial of medicinal “cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers” which she subsequently applied to casualties from the Battle of Beruna. When lingering over her wounded brother, Aslan gently reminds Lucy that “there are other people wounded”. Lucy’s cordial makes repeated appearances throughout The Chronicles of Narnia.

Pharmaceutical themes also feature strongly in JR Tolkien’s literary triumph, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien adorned Middle Earth with rich botanical diversity, but one species in particular, athelas, possessed exceptional medicinal properties. Throughout the multivolume epic, Aragorn demonstrates his knowledge of vanished healing arts by making use of athelas while tending injured hobbits – most notably within the “Houses of Healing” in Minas Tirith following the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

According to a winsome new book by Australian philosopher Paul Tyson, Lewis and Tolkien – the Oxford dons he ranks among the greatest British thinkers of the 20th century – were “seeking to clothe the Christian vision of reality, which they shared, in stories that engaged the hearts and imaginations of ordinary people”. By “plugging into convictions and attitudes still dormant” within Western societies, Dr Tyson suggests “Lewis and his friends hoped that a quiet revolution would take root in people’s minds” (Return to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times, Wipf and Stock, 2014).

If these insights are correct, could their wide use of medicinal themes suggest Lewis and Tolkien sensed that Western healthcare, and the impetus to use medicines wisely, is endangered in post-Christian societies? Both men wrote against a backdrop of 20th century totalitarianism and knew that in the Third Reich in particular, Nazi utilitarianism had refashioned German medicine such that its hospitals became “Houses of Killing” rather than the “Houses of Healing” envisaged by Tolkien.

While some might dismiss such concerns, the fact that the Australian Government in 2012 conferred one of its highest honours upon Professor Peter Singer, the philosopher who spent his career constructing an austere anti- Christian utilitarianism that recapitulates aspects of the Nazi outlook, suggests history has a strange way of repeating itself. Perhaps we should keep a more diligent eye upon our hospitals.

Professor Phil Burcham is a pharmacologist and elder in the PCA.

First Published in the Summer 2014/2015 Edition

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