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Home > February 2013 > "How Christian Compassion Changed Medicine"

"How Christian Compassion Changed Medicine"
By Dr. Jeff Sanders

Many great civilizations have advanced science and medicine.  We know that the ancient Chinese, Greeks, and the people of India had great knowledge and skill in treating various illnesses and performing basic surgeries. But the other day I was wondering, "Why did hospitals and the modern advancement of medicine come out of the West (Europe and North America predominantly) rather than from the Far East and Middle East (which also had great histories of science and medicine)?

Vishal Mangalwadi, a Christian from India, has written a fascinating book that deals with this question.  In his work, "The Book That Made Your World" sets forth the idea that it is the Christian idea of compassion, seen in the New Testament, that gave rise to the modern ministry of medicine as an occupation to relieve suffering for all people, not just for an elite class:

"Romans rejected Rome's culture because Christ confronted its cruelties with the gospel of a compassionate God.  He invited the poor, the meek, the sick, the sorrowing, the hungry, the weak, and the weary to come to him for rest.  He blessed children, touched lepers, healed the handicapped, delivered the demonized, ate with social outcasts, protected prostitutes, taught illiterate masses, opposed the oppressors, and reconciled rebellious sinners with their loving and forgiving heavenly Father.  Christ's followers built upon this tradition of compassion for the unlovable.  For example, in AD 369-- a few centuries before the birth of Islam-- St. Basil (AD 329-379), Orthodox bishop of Caesarea, founded the first hospital in Cappodocia (modern Anatolia) with three hundred beds."  (pp 305, 306)

Wow.  Didn't know that at all!  But, it is a historical fact that later the Muslims established medical schools and even hospitals, just like Christian Europe did in the Middle Ages. . . in fact, the Christians in many cases learned much in medicine from their interraction with the Muslims.  So. . . why did medicine decline in the Islamic world, and advance so far in the West?  Any thoughts, Mr. Mangalwadi?  

". . . Islam also believed in a compassionate God and respected Jesus Christ as a prophet.  It failed to capitalize on its assets becasue it preferred to follow a military hero-- Muhammed-- in place of a self-sacrificing savior, Christ.  Consequently, the Islamic tradition could not liberate Muslims from the classical pursuit of power.  It could not glorify self-giving service as a superior virtue."  p 308.  

As for India, he contends that both Hinduism and Buddhism (being born in India but exported elsewhere in the Far East) believed in Karma.  In Hinduism this is the idea that people who are currently suffering from the illnesses of grinding poverty are doing so because they must have sinned terribly in a previous life.  It would be better to let them die and either re-unite with the World Soul or be re-incarnated as something better.  For the Buddhists, who also believed in Karma, attachment to this world is a cause of suffering, therefore, one "must not get attached to anyone." (p 312).  This prevented much of the Far East from developing a "culture of care" that would propel medical science into creating the hospitals and mission-station dispensaries we find all over the world (usually run by Christians).

In the West, it was Benedict of Nursia (480-547) who believed that since God loved this world, he would practice a celibate life "not for its own sake, but to serve society, especially the poor and sick.  The Benedictine monks imprinted on the Western consciousness the idea of humility and service as the true means of greatness.  This idea became a defining feature of Western civilization.  It is the opposite of the Asian idea that lesser beings must serve the greater."  (p 306).  

The Bible...the Book that changed the world.  In so many ways.  Thank God.  

 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013, 11:01 PM

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