Dinner with a neurologist

My research interests lead to an healthy enthusiasm to talk about illness, healing and medicine whenever I get the chance. In medical science, there are some fertile cross over areas where the physiological study of, for example, the brain, pain, personality and genetic randoness lead ‘naturally’, I would argue, into discussions with philosophy, faith and theology.

On a girl’s night out recently, I found myself sat opposite a medical doctor who had specialised in neurology. So, between the starter and main course, we discussed M.E. and happened on to a favourite question of mine: ‘What does it mean to be healed?’

M.E. is a particularly controversial illness as it is a disease where the arguements over its cause, treatment and management are incredibly partisan and, at times, political. There are few specialists in the U.K. and people who suffer with it are often isolated and unable to access treatment and help, with doctors divided over whether it is a purely psychological condition or one with physical origins. 

My friend did have an opinion over what causes ME, but what was startled me was that she didn't believe I was asking an important or relevant question. While she conceded that the origin of a disease might help to find the cure, she expressed huge frustration that patients fixated on the question, ‘Why?’. She catalogued diseases that they could cure but no one knew the reason for the illness, and contrarily diseases which had a clear origin but remained incurable. The patient’s pesky desire to know why the disease was affecting them was not a question of interest to her as a physician trying to cure bodies and minds, or relieve suffering.

This radical physicalism was a shock to me. As someone with cancer cured by drugs, but healed through an investigation into the origins of my disease, my story and my faith (See ‘Cancer, a pilgrim companion’, SPCK, 2017), I found it deeply shocking that a doctor would have this brief, concise dismissal of a patients desire to know ‘Why?’. But it was a useful shock and one I use now as a timely reminder of the power imbalance that can exist in the dialogue between science and religion (here medicine and faith) to the detriment of those who ask these questions, and search for deeper understandings of life. 

As a Christian, I believe that I am made in the image of God and charged with dominion over the created order as described in Genesis; Humans exist to care for and handle the earthly things of life, including bodies and minds. Therefore questions about disorder and disease, and how they fit in with our theological understandings of ourselves and our relationship with the God of love, are urgent. Whether an academic, pastor or sitting in the kitchen making tea for someone lost in grief for the disease they have been diagnosed with, these are our questions too - why do things go wrong with our body, and what does disease and healing mean? There is a danger that we are simply dazzled by modern medicine power to explain, and bow down to the questions that they deem as relevant. 

The doctor’s power to heal is usually limited to the physical, and they daily have to deal with enormous questions of life and death, and their power and powerlessness. They have a heavy burden to bear, and must develop ways to deal with contingency of life and death, of randomness and uncertainty.  

But, there is a higher healing that we have the potential to access: spiritual healing where the central aim is not the health of the body and mind. Christian faith promotes peace despite the state of the body, the potential for reconciliation with the Creator even for the diseased and incurable. Cure and health are not ruled out of course, but it is not the only outcome that spiritual healing aims to provide. God’s spirit provokes us to continues to ask those questions that frustrate the physicalist, because we are created not just with a body, but with a mind and a spirit too. Further, we not only ask these questions but find answers too. The cure may be found in the hospital drugs and the physicians skill, but healing is found in reconciliation with God and God’s love for the beloved who asks ‘Why?’, and finds healing in the answers that echo back.