In 1971, John Lennon published a song by the title “Imagine.” In a slow, dreamy cadence, the Beatles musician invites the listener to, “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try; no hell below us; above us only sky.” He continues, “Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or
By William Polk Cheshire, Jr., MD, MA
EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article was given as an address at the inaugural meeting of the CMDA chapter at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It has been modified for use in Today’s Christian Doctor
In 1971, John Lennon published a song by the title “Imagine.” In a slow, dreamy cadence, the Beatles musician invites the listener to, “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try; no hell below us; above us only sky.” He continues, “Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for; and no religion, too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”1
Living life in peace is a beautiful image. And peace is well worth pursuing. But is Lennon’s path the true way toward peace? I submit to you that John Lennon’s vision is deficient because his imagination did not reach nearly high enough. I would like to encourage you to ignite your imagination beyond John Lennon’s words, to a vision that greatly exceeds his in beauty, unity and, yes, peace.
Lennon asks us to imagine there’s no religion. Is religion truly the culprit in a world that continues in suffering, disease, enmity, war and maldistribution of resources? The factual record of history tells a different story, one of ambition and greed hijacking religious language to motivate others to join in quests for political power and conquest. We have to look only as far back as the 20th century to find tens of millions of graves filled by and trampled under the feet of communist totalitarian regimes that ruthlessly enforced godless ideologies.2 No, religion is not the disease responsible for human sin, hatred and malice. Understood properly, it is the medicine for it. Lennon’s vision of a world without religion is like the child’s preference of doctors’ offices without shots or bitter pills.
When I refer to religion, I have in mind the ideas that inspired the noblest achievements of Western civilization. As our culture has become more secularized, we sometimes take for granted the enduring benefits the Judeo-Christian tradition provides for the benefit of all. One example is science. The scientific enterprise, which appropriately holds an esteemed position in our culture, owes its unique birth in history to the Christian worldview from which it emerged. The earliest scientists—Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Boyle, Faraday and many others—were devout Christians who had the confidence to investigate the universe systematically because they understood it to be rational, and thus open to study, testable and comprehensible, all because it was created and ordered by a rational God.3
We have seen how science can become sterile, even absurd, when severed from its theological roots. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, writes, “that ‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”4 And yet, life in all its complexities, from its moments of awe and exhilaration to the discouraging depths of despair, teaches us there is much more to a human being than bits of matter smashing against one another. As healthcare professionals dedicated to healing, we know we are more—our patients are more—than mishmashes of molecules. Humans are metaphorical double helices: one strand matter, the other spirit, inextricably intertwined. We are neurons with freedom, creatures with dignity, bodies with a purpose.
Another example of Christianity’s contributions is the hospital. Dr. William J. Mayo asserted in 1926, “The hospital should be a refuge to which the sick might go for relief as they went before our Savior, their distress the only condition of admittance, not their social or financial status, race or creed.”5 Although one finds healing traditions in many ancient cultures, it was Christianity that originated the hospital as an institution devoted to the provision of organized care for anyone who comes and is in medical or surgical need.6 The emergence of hospitals during the first few centuries of the Christian era testifies to the earnestness and, I would submit, also the validity of the conviction of their founders that Jesus of Nazareth, descendant of Abraham and David, the wounded healer of Isaiah 53, was none other than the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. Acts of healing saturate the gospel narratives, which proclaim that, in Jesus, the kingdom of God has, at last, broken in upon our hurting world. In Jesus is the promise of fullness of life and ultimately the restoration of all things. The sick may find profound encouragement that, through Jesus, suffering has purpose and death is defeated.
While it is not necessary to be a Christian to be an excellent healthcare professional, the Christian healthcare professional recognizes a transcendent aspect to healthcare that fills the healing art with further meaning. The CMDA ethics statement on professionalism articulates that the Christian healthcare professional “appreciates and encourages a deeper meaning of health and illness in the context of the special value and eternal destiny of human life.”7 From this perspective, the Christian healthcare professional appreciates the profound truth that “the patient’s dignity derives from having been created in the image of God.”7 Christian healthcare professionals appreciate that, in their actions toward others, people of faith are responsible to a righteous, merciful and loving God who is deeply concerned for the sick and suffering. If we love God, and if we truly believe He is present and active in the world, manifesting His power and goodness even in the small things of personal experience, then we, too, share in His concern and consider it a privilege to assist in bringing healing to others. But unlike the dictates of bureaucracies or laws that enforce compliance through rules and by penalties, and unlike the cold, calculating code of computer programs, God’s commands are backed by love, which infuses the Christian healthcare professional with an ethic of care that reaches far beyond what any of us can do through our own strength.
Faith in Christ also supplies the healthcare professional with humility. Our Lord teaches us to examine ourselves and confess our sins to God who, in His mercy, generously grants forgiveness. Christian healthcare professionals know they are accountable to God for the care provided to fellow human beings. Yet, despite diligent effort and the best of intentions, “medical and dental care is sometimes imperfect or inadequate,”7 and faith encourages us to improve and persevere. Humility is also the basis for trustworthiness. There are some things the Christian healthcare professional, as a person of moral integrity, will not do.8
When I refer to religion, I also have in mind the divinely revealed teachings that guide my understanding of the world, teachings that have consistently held true when put to the test in my own life journey. This religion is much more than a set of Scriptures, doctrines and prayers, more than scenic buildings and uplifting music. Real religion isn’t a matter of rules; rather, it is a relationship. The Christian lives in personal relationship with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Guided by the light of His teaching, we walk by faith.
When I refer to religion, I also have in mind the heartening fellowship that is possible among a community of believers such as are assembled on campuses and in homes across the country through CMDA. There are people involved in my local CMDA chapter and in national and international CMDA ministries who have enriched my life beyond measure. In coming together to share a meal, to support one another, to learn from one another and to bear one another’s burdens, we encounter boundless opportunities to discover joy.
In the pages of Scripture, we find incomparable moral guidance to inspire a team of healthcare professionals. Much in Scripture aligns with and provides a foundation for the Mayo Clinic Values, which are of Franciscan origin.9 I will cite just a few relevant verses. First, our primary value, that “the needs of the patient come first,” is affirmed in Philippians 2:3, which says “in humility value others above yourselves,” as well as in the example of Jesus Himself, who willingly endured the cross and gave up His life for the sake of others.
The value of respect brings to mind 1 Peter 2:17a, “Show proper respect to everyone.” The value of integrity: James 5:12, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (ESV). Of compassion: Matthew 14:14, “When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (ESV). Of healing: Mark 1:34a, “And [Jesus] healed many who were sick with various diseases” (ESV). Of teamwork: Mark 6:7 and Luke 10:1, he sent them out “two by two.” Of innovation: Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (ESV). Of excellence: Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord” (ESV). And of stewardship: 1 Corinthians 4:2, “…it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (ESV). These are words of life, words of healing, words on which to build an effective and compassionate healthcare community that honors the Great Physician.
So when John Lennon asks us to imagine a world without religion, he is asking for a world without Christians. That means, if we consider his words carefully, civilization without Christian contributions and without science, hospitals that have never known the parable of the Good Samaritan and healthcare without Christian healthcare professionals. Whether we could imagine such a world is a less difficult question than whether, if we did actually live in a world devoid of religion, deprived of the love of God and impoverished of the knowledge of God, could we possibly have imagined this one that in so many ways has been touched by people of faith?
John Lennon is not the only music artist who invites us to imagine. In 2001, Bart Millard composed a song entitled “I Can Only Imagine.” This song, performed by MercyMe, looks ahead to the day when we will see Jesus face to face. It goes like this: “I can only imagine what it will be like, when I walk by your side. I can only imagine what my eyes will see, when your face is before me. I can only imagine. Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you, Jesus, or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah; will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine.”10
What amazing future is in store for you as a Christian healthcare professional and for healthcare in general through the faithful efforts of Christians? I can only imagine.
1 Lennon J. Imagine. Apple Records, 1971.
2 Malia M. Foreward. In: Courtois S, Werth N, Panné J-L, et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
3 Jaki SL. Science and Creation. Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Academic Press, 1977.
4 Crick F. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Touchstone, 1994, p. 3.
5 Mayo WJ. Address delivered at the dedication of the teaching hospital of the University of Michigan. Journal of the Michigan State Medical Society 1926, pp. 9-12.
6 Cheshire WP. Twigs of terebinth: the ethical origins of the hospital in Judeo-Christian tradition. Ethics & Medicine 2003; 19(3): 143-153.
7 CMDA Ethics Statement on Professionalism. Accessed at: https://www.cmda.org/resources/publication/professionalism-ethics-statement
8 CMDA Ethics Statement on Healthcare Rights of Conscience. Accessed at: https://www.cmda.org/resources/publication/healthcare-right-of-conscience-ethics-statement
10 Millard B. I Can Only Imagine. INO Records/Curb Records, 2001.