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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

Examining modern medicine.

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Image: Penn LDI (2016) at The College of Physicians, Philadelphia, PA

My dress shoes echoed through the hall as I ascended the marble staircase to our meeting room. I had just begun my work as a Psychiatric Physician Assistant in Philadelphia where I practice Christian Psychiatry and had come to meet with other physicians, healthcare workers, and community organizers. The building is iconic in Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum, home to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest private medical society in the country. One of the founders of the institution was Benjamin Rush, a physician and reformer whose name is also found at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. As I ascended the steps it was hard to miss a looming figure, at the top of the staircase, in an honored position stood a tall marble statue. A man with a large staff in his right hand and a familiar coiled serpent running its length. The snake's head positioned just so that the figure's hand brushed it slightly. The symbolism is hard to miss; we see it represented in medicine frequently from the sides of ambulances to the logos of various medical associations. The man was the mythical Asclepius, the Greek demigod whose healing power was so great that Zeus struck him with lightning. It was said Asclepius was so good at his craft he could even raise the dead. The ancient Greeks venerated their mythical figure and his snakes. Often they released them in dormitories where the convalescing slept. As patients rested snakes slithered on the floor beneath them in the hope that some of their healing power would be imparted to the sick.

I smiled thinking of the symbolism and irony of releasing the very animal portrayed in Genesis, the tempter, who's crafty words to Eve eventually led to the introduction of disease and disorder into our world, here used to make people well. Reaching the top of the staircase I entered the meeting room but found it difficult to focus; the image of Asclepius remained with me. Its silent grandeur posed to me a question I had not yet asked of myself in my practice of medicine. Who holds the honored position in my practice? Though the medical community often nods to its antiquity like Asclepius in the College, the actual practice of medicine since the time of the Greeks has experienced a profound transformation. Far from placing Asclepius in the honored place something far more sinister lurks. It coils itself up the staff of the physician and brushes its head against the hand. Medicine has embraced the cold, hard light of naturalism. There is no place for faith when we have tests and beakers and blood. All that exists are those things we can observe with our senses. The Greeks might have released snakes but we know far better, we have science. For those of us practicing Christian Psychiatry, this presents quite the predicament. Our practice is predicated on the ability to merge (however sloppily) this fact: that humans are material beings that have an immaterial soul and a spirit with its mind, will and emotions. The practice isn’t smooth like a marble statue; practicing medicine while holding this fact in balance is messy work. It’s something I'm just beginning to learn how to do and I imagine it will take a lifetime to master. In the honored place of my practice I don’t want Asclepius or his staff, I also don’t want Naturalism, and more than either of those I don’t want myself in that place. This, I believe, is the second greatest temptation and threat to our effectiveness as Christian providers: that instead of naturalism, we will place ourselves in the honored position. It coils up a staff of pride and reaches deep into the heart of the practitioner. It whispers in our ear words of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. From that facade of power, we rely on our own strength, skill, and expertise to treat what only God can. Instead, we must cling to Jesus. For my practice to succeed in changing hearts and minds I need a power that only flows when God is its source.

This leads me to my final question, and it is the one I ask of you. Who holds the honored position in your health? When the doctors proclaim one thing, can you hold fast to promises from another, far greater physician? The same one who formed your body in your mother’s womb? Because though we live in a fallen world in which our very bodies display the impact of our disobedience through Adam and Eve, we proclaim that our savior is in the process of making all things new. So whether you find your healing on this side of heaven or the next, I pray as you ascend the marble staircase of your heart, you find only one thing in that honored position—your savior Jesus.

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