How Jesus Shaped the West: Medicine

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Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Medicine.

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Every time I visit her village, with a shy smile, Kasih runs and jumps into my arms. Kasih—whose name means “love”—is a joyful and energetic eight year old, born to loving parents in a lakeside village in South-East Asia. It’s a miracle that Kasih made it past her second birthday.

Kasih was born with a cleft palate: a developmental defect that leaves children with a gap in the roof of their mouth. In Kasih’s case, this extended through her upper lip, nose and cheek, leaving her constantly exposed to life-threatening infection.

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In 2008, I had the privilege of playing a small part in welcoming Kasih and her mother to Australia, as a team of doctors, translators and hosts made available to her life-saving craniofacial surgery. Kasih now lives a completely normal life, playing happily with other children in her home village.

Kasih’s story is an inspiring reminder that modern medicine is a gift. In fact it is a gift that Jesus gave the world. How dare I make such a fanatic and audacious claim?

What about ancient Greece’s Hippocratic Oath and Rome’s public baths and military hospitals? What about the early Indian inventions of plastic surgery, cataract operations and massage therapy? What about the surgery, medical encyclopaedias, hospitals and medical schools of the ancient Islamic world?

“Modern medicine is a gift that Jesus gave the world.”

Without doubt, many streams make a river. Still, it is a glaring fact of history that modern medicine was born in the West, and that the West is still the stage of its major advances. Why?

Emperor Julian of the fourth century offers us an early answer. Disgruntled at the growth of Christianity, he complained that the followers of Jesus “support not only their own poor but ours as well [while] all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

Moved not by compassion but jealousy, he instructed “those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.” He completely missed that it was actually compassion that drove radical Christian love to the poor and marginalised.

“Unique to Europe was belief in a compassionate God who became one of us, and invited the poor, meek, sick, hungry, weak and weary to come to him for rest.”

In fact it was radical Christian love and compassion that animated the development of medicine from the ancient world through to today.

Monks learnt from other cultures, translating Greek and Islamic medicine, documenting what worked and what didn’t as they practiced. Gradually, wanting to spend more time in prayer, they passed their knowledge on to others.

From the thirteenth century, universities took over the tradition, and refined the knowledge they received. A Catholic priest wrote the first modern book of surgery, and Christian scholars of the Renaissance like Leonardo da Vinci gathered incredible knowledge about human anatomy.

“Built on the life of Jesus, Europe birthed a culture of care that turned a science into an industry of compassion.”

In the seventeenth century, an English physician called Thomas Sydenham, who grew up in a strongly Christian home, began questioning the medical practices and assumptions handed down, and began what we now call “modern medicine”.

He wrote that every medical practitioner “must remember that it is no mean or ignoble creature that he deals with. We may ascertain the worth of the human race since for its sake God’s only begotten Son became man and thereby ennobled the nature he took upon it.”

In writing this, he gave us the key to understanding Western civilisation’s unique role in the development of medicine. Medicine is far more than a science. It will only flourish if it’s built on a culture of care and compassion.

“Christians believed that God loved this suffering world so much that he sent his own Son to befriend and save sinners.”

While people of other cultures have as much natural empathy as anyone, unique to Europe was belief in a compassionate God who became one of us, and invited the poor, meek, sick, hungry, weak and weary to come to him for rest; who blessed children, touched lepers, delivered the demonised, and healed the sick.

Roman beliefs built an empire of cruelty that killed for entertainment. In India, suffering was seen as karma: cosmic justice that must run its course. Buddhism valued compassion but the Buddha’s third noble truth urged people to remain detached from those they cared for, lest they too suffer. While Islam’s Allah is compassionate and merciful, its prophet was best known as a military leader.

On the other hand, Christians believed that God loved this suffering world so much that he sent his own Son to befriend and save sinners. Built on the life of Jesus, Europe birthed a culture of care that turned a science into an industry of compassion.

“Modern medicine isn’t found just anywhere. It has a specific and unique origin.”

Secular British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge said, “I’ve spent a number of years in India and Africa where I found much righteous endeavour undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the [socialist] society, or a humanist leper colony.”

The Red Cross is now secular. Nursing has become a commercial enterprise. The significance of big city hospital names like “Calvary” or “St. Andrews” or “Good Samaritan,” once pregnant with meaning, is now all but lost on our culture.

But as Kasih’s life-transforming trip to a Western hospital reminds us, modern medicine isn’t found just anywhere. It has a specific and unique origin. And as Kasih’s name reminds us, it is love—the love of this man staggering up Calvary to give us life—that has made all the difference in the world.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Liberty.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

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