Lesson 2 - More than Science

Unique Patients, Generic Practitioner?

In Judeo-Christian Perspectives on Psychology, clinical psychologist William Miller comments that “spirituality has been psychology’s clearest taboo.” In particular, mental health professionals have been expected to explore every dimension of their patients’ lives—except for what they believe about God.

Farr explains that, historically, the same model has dominated medical practice, too. However, in recent years, there has been a push toward patient-centered care, which views the patient as a whole person by accounting for his or her cultural context, values, and spiritual commitments. The problem is that, according to conventional wisdom, these unique patients are to receive care from generic physicians, who are expected to check their values at the door when they come to work.

  • How have you experienced the influence of this model of the patient–physician relationship?

  • In what specific ways do you bring your personal values–particularly spiritual values–to your interactions with patients?

Medicine and Science

Questions Behind the Questions

Farr’s point is that there is no such thing as a generic practitioner. In other words, the humanity of a medical professional (including spiritual and religious values) will inevitably impact care decisions, including potentially dramatic interventions.

This means that scientific information cannot, by itself, solve complex care questions, which inevitably include moral and spiritual dimensions. For instance, research shows that a medical professional's religion is the most influential factor when it comes to weighing competing courses of action.

Theological concepts and traditions (and their secular analogues) are implicit in the choices we make in deploying medical science to respond to problems with which patients present. What we understand about God and ourselves makes a difference for what we understand about medicine.

Dr. Farr Carlin

All of this suggests that there are always larger Questions behind any given medical question, and how a practitioner responds to the situation is determined by our “fundamental architecture of meaning,” as Farr puts it.

Often these larger Questions are theological. The theologian Paul Tillich called them “questions of ultimate concern”—that is, questions that determine the very nature of our existence: What is the purpose of a human being? How do we define health? How should we think about death?

  • Take some time to think about a controversial medical intervention in your own particular field. What are the deeper questions that lie behind them? How might you draw on your Christian faith to answer these questions?

  • Can you think of a time when your spiritual values dictated your course of treatment for a patient?

Naming the Hunger

Here, Farr argues that there is a deep human hunger that science cannot name, much less fulfill. It’s no coincidence that many religious traditions, not least Christianity, often use the language of appetite and longing to characterize human existence.

In his book He Held Radical Light, the poet Christian Wiman posed the basic human riddle like this: “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?”

It’s a question that science can’t answer. And this is where religion comes in:

One of the key limits of science, and scientific ways of knowing, is that for many people, they do not sate the human hunger for our work to have meaning. Theological traditions—among the many things they do—address that hunger. They name it. Christianity names it.

Dr. Farr Curlin

If we’re not going to attend seriously to this human longing, then our medical care will suffer—and it has, as Farr will emphasize in the next lesson. For now, take a moment to reflect on this question:

  • Think about your daily interaction with patients. What kinds of hunger do you see in them? What are they longing for?

  • Can you think of a time in your practice when you came to the limits of scientific data? How did you decide on a course of action?

Want to learn more? Explore the extra content for this course.