Medical Missionary

So it was this routine medical screening. The scary-looking machine had an open window that said “Laser aperture: do not stare at beam.” Someone had taped a Yankees emblem on the superstructure as well, and I wondered if that caused anybody additional anxiety. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but medical tests bother me a lot. I was glad to get outside, even if it was cold and icy. There’s quite a few medical facilities in our town, so I had walked to this one. On the way home, watching out for ice on the sidewalk, I passed a bus stop. A woman said “Excuse me, but could you spare a dollar or two?” I’d just come from a medical office, I was wearing sweatpants (which I never do unless I’m jogging) and I had no pockets. “Sorry,” I said, “I just came from the doctor, I don’t have anything on me.”

“I’m a missionary,” she said. Without giving me a chance to get away in the chilly air she began to preach a sermon just for me. It was after morning rush hour and nobody else was around. I wondered when her bus would come. I nodded politely and agreed, and took two steps away. Still she continued. After a few minutes I wondered how long this would go on. I’d already told her I agreed with her. She was insistent that Jesus would give me anything I wanted if I confessed my sins every day. “Money, cars, houses…” I had to wonder why she was taking the bus, then. Besides, all I wanted was to get home, and she was preventing that from happening.

Finally I had to turn and leave her mid-homily. I try never to be rude to religious folks. They’re only doing what they’ve been told to do by others. I did wonder what it was about my appearance that didn’t make her believe me. It had been a while since I’d had a haircut. Was it the beard? The sweatpants? The fact I was wearing a black jacket? Ice was everywhere on the sidewalk. This neighborhood is middle aged—sagging a little, with drainage issues. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but sometimes being accosted by religion when you just want to get indoors on a winter’s day, you think even a begging missionary might understand that. I thought back to the scary machine with its little warning sign. Some people are tempted to stare too long into the light. It can affect the way you see. Indeed, if you let your gaze linger, you might just possibly even go blind.

Image credit: Torsten Henning, Wikimedia Commons

Heal and Farewell

What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.

Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.

Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.

Med Ed

I’m not really the one who should be on oxygen in this situation. It was a routine, scheduled oral surgery for a impacted wisdom tooth. Not mine, but my wife’s. I sat in the recovery room and they wheeled her in on oxygen. When the doctor stopped in to check on her, he looked at me and said, “My God, get that man on oxygen! He’s going to pass out!” So they took the gas from my wife and laid me down instead. My wife had the magnanimity to think it was cute, but I felt embarrassed nevertheless. I couldn’t go into medicine even if I wanted to. I haven’t the stomach for it. So as I write this in the Urgent Care unit, I’m a bit light-headed. We came in for treatment of a snow-shoveling-related injury for my wife, and my mirror neurons are firing overtime. I hear them call a code red, and I think I hear the helicopter coming down and I think I might pass out. I can’t stand the pain-filled groans coming from the next room.

Compassion is one of the most overlooked of human virtues. I haven’t taken a sick day since 1987, but I’ve had companies tell me I hadn’t earned any yet. You have to earn the right to be sick. Even when I threw up on public transit two weeks ago, in one of the most embarrassing moments of half a century, I still got up at 3:30 the next morning to climb aboard again. So I’m sitting here, feeling ill, although I’m fine, and thinking about how people naturally feel for others. Only practiced cynicism can erode that. Or maybe I’m just a wimp.

It is no coincidence that most religions feature healers or healing as one of their central tenets. Life involves suffering, anticipated or not. There is something more than the physical going on here. Pain is the enemy, and I’m the one who’s well. There may be atheists in foxholes and even in hospitals, but they must be aware that the chemicals chasing one another around the neurons upstairs believe something else. Religion is a coping mechanism, perhaps something even more. So the winter takes its toll, and the snow claims another victim. All those instruments on the wall are beginning to creep me out. My mirror neurons suggest that if only those made of ice could melt with a little compassion, this world would be a more humane place. And when you get a moment, could I get a little oxygen over here?


Check Mace

In the medical sciences building of the University of St Andrews stands a glass display case cradling a mace. The mace, a symbol of smiting authority that goes all the way back to Old Kingdom pharaohs, has a long tradition in academia as well. In all the pomp and glitter of an academic processional, a dean, provost, or chancellor carries a symbolic mace, as if to keep an unruly faculty in order. (I am sure that most of them have wanted to use that mace a time or two in reality, but have been constrained by both convention and the rule of law.) Medical science is among the fields of research quickly moving away from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of medieval superstition. We are, after all, simply soft machines, doing as nature has programmed us. What more could there be to it?


Looking more closely at the mace, I see on its ornate base, a flanking ring of winged oxen. Perhaps obscure to medical students, the winged ox is the symbol of the putative Gospel writer, Luke. Each of the Gospels emphasizes different aspects of Jesus, and the symbol assigned to Luke has been the ox. If the wings didn’t give it away, the explanatory placard on the wall nearby confirms my analysis. Eyes traveling up the silver shaft, the crown of the mace houses yet another saint, this one an apostle. St Andrew (of course) tops the mace, holding his X-winged cross. Underneath is an amorphous structure for which I need to turn to the placard to have explained. The fountain of healing waters, it tells me.


From tip to tale, then, the mace of medical science is inherently religious. My reading of late has been from scientists claiming that, in the words of the old commercial, “parts is parts.” There is no underlying life-force or animating principle. Life is biological robotics, so I’m told. So as I stood in St Andrews last week, considering this metallic mace, I was poised on the edge of science and symbol. There is no biological need for such symbols—indeed, the mace was originally a weapon to inflict grievous bodily harm. Now, chased with silver, intricately ornate, it begins and ends with religious implications. I can’t help wonder what the robots make of that.

Wolves and Sheep

A state of the university address might not be a bad exercise.  If I might be so bold, as an inveterate outsider who nonetheless has tried to play by the rules, I have been cast in a supporting role—I think a few of my observations might be valid.  Some of my more pastoral colleagues try to reassure me that editors influence more people than professors, but in fact, the professors are the ones with the luxury to write books.  I get to sit on the bus and read them.  I do read many proposals before they become full-fledged books, and, interestingly, I get to discern how someone becomes an “expert.”  I worry a little about this latter point.  When it comes to religion, there are a few too many experts and dreadfully too few places for them to find gainful employment.  This is a volatile mix. I often run across religion experts who have professorships because they are of the right brand.  In a way that is almost inconceivable in any other profession, schools where religion is taught are actually allowed to discriminate.  This fact may even stretch out, in the case of some religions, to more objective fields.  Some religions teach that illness is spiritual rather than physical.  Some of them have medical schools, staffed by believers.

This comes back to the privileging of belief.  We all believe things, and most of us (if not all of us, when the lights are out) include some irrational things in that realm.  Beliefs can change, but not easily.  In the case of religions, most often we are taught our beliefs.  Sitting back and thinking about those truisms is the ultimate of academic enterprises, and yet few matters have a greater impact on society as a whole than the belief structures of people.  If you want to start a university for your brand of religion, after all, the law protects you if you keep your biases on your sleeve.  These people get to write books with the credibility that pathetic posers, like the current blogger, are doomed to lack.  You see, if someone is an expert, they have to have an institution to prove it.  That’s the way higher education works.

I read lots of stuff.  I sometimes think maybe I read a little too much because the ideas begin to affect my beliefs.  Nevertheless, it is a risk I’m willing to take.  It seems to me that if a religion is really as secure as they all pretend to be, you’d be willing to invite a few interlopers in your doors—a few wolves in wolves’ pelts.  If the sheep have to run, think of it as a chance to test their belief systems.  If the sheep overcome the wolves, then they will have earned the stars in their crowns.  Sometimes I am criticized for my liberal approach to things.  One thing my training has taught me, however, is that systems carefully reasoned through don’t shy away from challenges.  That’s a major difference on many belief-based structures.  Beliefs do not appreciate being challenged.  They want to be right.  But then, don’t we all?  It seems to me that the time for allowing prejudice against other religious views has outlived its usefulness.  If the truth is the truth, after all, it will be able to stand any fright that the wolves might bring.


Moocher Man

Influenza seems to be going around. Since I spend at least three hours a day on a crowded bus I get to observe all kinds of uncouth behavior. Not that I’m always Mr. Manners (New York has a way of doing that to you), but I do cover my face when I cough or sneeze and sometimes I feel that I’m in the minority. My wife, concerned with supplies dwindling, made an appointment for me to get a flu shot at the local clinic. I went in and took a number. I guess I’ve been cursed with good health, and that may be a good thing. For my first five years in New Jersey I couldn’t afford health insurance—this was known as Bush Care—and hadn’t needed to see a doctor. Yesterday was my first time in the clinic. Although I had a confirmed appointment, a kind of argument broke out in the office (this is, after all, New Jersey) because non-patients weren’t supposed to be given the inoculation. Or they were, but they had to pay for it. Or their insurance would be charged and they could get the shot as long as they had insurance. Or why didn’t people just go to Walgreens instead. In the midst of the melee, a nurse called my name and a few minutes later I was being jabbed and sent on my way.

In all of this, one of the largest ethical issues of this country is highlighted. Who has a right to basic medical care? Among the conservative crowd that even includes some who can’t afford insurance, there are those who decry moochers. I grew up without health insurance. My mother relied on welfare to help raise three boys whose father had disappeared and our medical care was very, very basic indeed. Maybe people just didn’t say it in front of kids back in the 60’s, but I never heard anyone grousing that the poor should be left to fend for themselves. That took Reaganomics. In any case, working as hard as I could to break out of that lower class, I earned a Ph.D. only to be turned out of a job by a devout worshipper of George W. Bush. No medical insurance. Again. Now with a child of my own. What I’ve heard since the new millennium is that for those who can’t afford insurance—too bad! Just get a job, bum!


I often think about those who make such statements and how they valorize the Bible. If I recall correctly, Jesus handed out free health care. Socialized medicine existed in his corner of the world twenty centuries ago. And we in one of the most prosperous nations on earth argue about who can get a flu shot. In the end, I paid for it; I’d even taken my checkbook along with that intent. Nobody thought to ask me. But as I sat there within full view and certainly full conversational distance, I was objectified by the medical system. I wasn’t a guy who sits on a crowded bus with people who don’t cover their mouths. I was a moocher. A liability. In the waiting room around me I noticed patients tucking away passports and green cards. This is New Jersey, after all. For many, however, despite the cold we’re experiencing, it might feel like a much, much hotter place indeed. A place where, the Bible intimates, nobody cares about anybody else and the flames never die.

Playing Doctor

Science, religion, humanity. People are a conundrum. Medical professionals have the unenviable task of sorting out what is wrong with this jumble of organic biological systems and also attempting to address the uniquely human aspect of their subjects. As far as life forms go, although we may not be on top of the evolutionary ladder, we are suitably, impressively complex. We haven’t yet sorted out how mental states figure into physical processes: a number of cases of “faith healing” seem to have been verified, but the mechanism remains unknown. Praying has been demonstrated to improve some physical conditions with the believer saying God is doing the work and the skeptic suggesting it is the healing aspect of our own minds. How do you treat a creature that may not even agree with you on the ground-rules?

A story in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger revealed that New Jersey hospitals are experimenting with human subjects. The subjects, however, are doctors, not patients. In an effort to bring science and the humanities together, several hospitals are sponsoring reading groups for doctors. Like a garden-variety Oprah reading club, the physicians read a novel and discuss the human elements with each other. The theory is that it may help them understand the softer side of the science – how to touch the human reality of a field of study that has become very scientific. Specialists in the sciences and humanities have grown apart.

The humanities have long been assigned to the “less necessary” side of both university programs and the job market. Ironically, among those who are most famous in our pragmatic, make-a-buck world are musicians, actors, film-makers, best-selling novelists – in short, masters of one of the humanities. A darker side exists here as well; even celebrated humanities specialists can turn on one another. Contradictions and conflicts are part of human nature. Religion, one of the humanities, is a stellar example of the heights and depths of human behavior. As physicians attempt to discover what really makes us tick, reading novels is a good place to start. Attending religious services may be a bit more chancy, but like any human endeavor, one might get lucky and make a truly groundbreaking discovery. Did Rasputin write any novels?

Playing doctor, once upon a time.