Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction

By Volck, Brian | The Christian Century, March 4, 2015 | Go to article overview

Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction


Volck, Brian, The Christian Century


Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction

By Gary B. Ferngren

Johns Hopkins University Press, 256 pp., $24.95 paperback

The Cincinnati hospital where I work was founded in the 19th century by women of the Episcopal diocese to provide medical and surgical care for local children, but it has since become a large, secular research facility. Internationally known for its subspecialty research and practice innovations, the hospital receives referrals from around the globe. I have yet to meet a patient who came for the spiritual environment, though the hospital's pastoral care division employs chaplains of various faiths and denominations who are highly trained in theology, counseling, and the use of sophisticated assessment tools. Although some families develop therapeutically valuable relationships with pastoral care staff, what gets them in the door is our clinical competence in the applied science of medicine. Everything else is value-added.

Gary Ferngren's handy new volume on the history of religion and medicine in the West reminds the reader how new and odd this is. From the time of the ancient Near East until very recently in the economically developed countries of the Global North, the categories we now call religion and medicine were intricately related and often inseparable. But to the degree that the relationship between religion and medicine was acknowledged during my undergraduate and medical education, it was viewed as a tale of scientific progress triumphing over religious obscurantism. Using considerable recent scholarship that calls that Whiggish narrative into question, Ferngren reveals a richer, more interesting story.

Before surveying 40 centuries in a geographical area stretching from Mesopotamia to North America, Ferngren announces that his book is "neither a history of medicine nor a history of religion, ... but rather an introduction intended for nonspecialists." As such, the book serves the interested novice while leaving much for scholars to quibble with.

What Ferngren does well is considerable. He recognizes that the "imaginative gulf" separating us from our predecessors obscures continuing challenges that technology and scientific control are unlikely to eliminate or solve: our own pain and suffering, our response to such things in others, and the question of how to make meaning in the presence of bodily limitations. Yet he also knows that most of what we moderns consider universal attitudes toward suffering and care are, in fact, historically contingent.

Ferngren begins his survey in the ancient Near East with the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and the Hellenistic period. Buttressed by written documents and archaeological evidence, his narrative stresses complexity over uniformity across and within these cultures. If he perhaps devotes excessive attention to distinguishing between "religious," "magical," and "natural" medicine--as if such categories are unproblematic, transhistorical, and transcultural--he nevertheless demonstrates that ancient medicine was more than just charms and incantations.

Ferngren identifies fifth-century BCE Greece as the location and moment when medicine became a science as well as a craft. Greek medicine and syncretistic polytheism dominated the Hellenic, Hellenistic, and Roman Mediterranean. Another critical point came with the advent of Christianity, which built on a Jewish understanding that all humans are created in the divine image and that service to others--especially the poor--is a religious imperative. …

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