|The Sick Child, by Edvard Munch|
At the heart of the Christian faith and thinking about human illness lies a contradiction. If illness is accepted as a punishment from God, then 'Christian healing' and 'Christian medicine' resists the will of God – alternatively, compromises one's faith in his purposes.The idea of the divine origin of illnesses, and their perception as a divine punishment for the sins of human beings dates back much before Christianity. It was shared for instance by Hebrews and Mesopotamians. However, this was not a hindrance for them – as it was, and is, in Christianity – to relate to diseases not merely, and not primarily with supplication by prayers and hoping for miracles in the expectation of healing, but in an actively medical way, namely with their empirical observation, interpretation and explanation, and with an attitude aiming at their prevention and healing.
For Christian faith and thinking, human illnesses are primarily the results and consequences of original sin, as well as the 'blows' of its original punishment and other, also divine, punishments associated with it, such as 'historical' punishments beyond the expulsion from paradise.
Secondarily, however, from a Christian 'point of view', illnesses are the punishments of yet another kind of divine sin of personal concern, and as such, in fact external to man, unappealable, unexplainable, and actually unforeseeable, and, while purportedly determinate, not clearly identifiable. These 'blows' are not meant to smite the human race in general, but specifically individual people, and of course, are exclusively designated to make them accept divine punishment.
Consequently, if we give deeper thought to the matter, then it emerges as highly problematic whether the naturally human-medical efforts of healing can indeed be considered as human activities worthy of divine contentment and respect. They are carried out, namely, as confrontation with 'illnesses' which are identified with all sorts of divine punishments in 'correspondence' with divine orders and intentions. Or, on the contrary, they should be considered a threatening insight into ever newer, very much determined sin, connected to, and branching further from, the original sin – that is to say, knowledge.
Paradoxically, Western science, purportedly, and also actually 'devoid of ethics', is precisely a product of Christianity – since, if the knowledge of the distinctions between good and evil, true and false, beautiful and ugly is considered and treated exactly as the original sin of mankind, then cognition and systematic knowledge, constitutive and indispensable for human life, can only be cultivated with a 'bad consciousness', and mostly with the ignorance of this 'ethics'.
And thus medicine and medical doctors were prosecuted during the Christian Middle Ages with special theological and ecclesiastical concern (and also afterwards, in fact to this day compared even to other sciences and scholars). Because medicine – as a search for knowledge and knowledge – is not only a further immersion into the original sin, like any other historically articulated science, but, more than that – as healing! – it comes into a direct confrontation with that indefinable, yet 'concrete' divine decision and will which punishes that particular person (!) with that particular disease.
While, of course, the cases of healing sometimes occurring nevertheless could only be regarded in fact from a consistently Christian viewpoint as miracles of divine grace. It is therefore this grace and only its penitent reception that, from a 'Christian point of view', an ill person, as well as his / her caretaker, can actually strive, urge, and hope for.
So it is no wonder, historically speaking, that the medieval, and especially early medieval meaning of medico had so much shifted towards the meaning of curo – namely an indeed 'positive' and sui generis Christian attitude and obligation, the nursing and attendance of the weak, the poor, and the sick - that it no longer means in fact 'healing' in an (ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, etc.) medical sense, but rather the caretaking of the sick and the suffering. Obviously, in the midst of a penitent supplication, and in the desperate hope of 'healing' as a miracle-like divine mercy.
The case is probably the same with Jesus, considered the son of God. Because, in a real and explicit medical sense – that is, in the sense of the medical conception, knowledge, and skills of his age, culture, and environment – he was not really a healer, but he only made all sorts of miracles connected (also) to illnesses.
This illustrates those deep ruptures which Christianity meant and represented in relation to – recte: against and opposed to – e.g. ancient Greek and Roman traditions, where truth was always tried to be knowingly and continuously thought and kept together with good and beautiful, as the noblest human modes of being.
Strictly considering the relation of Christianity to illness – which actually seriously and decisively influenced two millennia – we must ultimately make it clear that, since illness, according to Christianity, is considered in its origin, source, nature, and purpose one of the main types of divine punishment for human sins, the liberation from these sins – recte, healing itself, or the recovery obtained in its historically articulated efforts – cannot actually and really be considered a blessed task of human, let us say, medical involvement (that is to say, one articulated in the sense of actual, all-time therapy, carried out with knowledge and skills).
Instead, it can only be perceived as a result and consequence of the 'workings' of divine grace, achieved by purportedly always exceptional, pious miracles. Consequently, the expression 'Christian medicine' in the sense of healing or therapy – because it is separated from God's purposes – is none other in fact than a mere contradictio in terminis, an absurdity.
'Yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord,
but to the physicians.' II Chronicles 16:12.
Király V. István is an Associate Professor in the Hungarian Department of Philosophy of the Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. This post is an extract selected by the Editors, and slightly adjusted for Pi, from his bilingual Hungarian-English Philosophy of Human Illness, which focuses on specific human reporting. Free downloads are available at Illness a Possibility of the Living Being or Illness a Possibility of the Living Being.