Is health merely the physical or does it include a more metaphysical component? When receiving care from a clinician, should more than just the body be nurtured? Do humans have a spiritual component of self, and if so, how should the “spirit” come into clinical consideration? Such questions arise when we consider the implications of faith intersecting with physical health.

In 2015 the Lancet produced a series on the intersection of faith and health. The series included three commentaries, several scientific studies, a world report and two perspective essays. While each document is rich with philosophical, medical and religious material, I find particular interest in the ethical considerations when faith constructs are integrated into health provision. 

Chris Beyrer, a professor of public health and human rights at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, opens his commentary “The Proper Study of Mankind” with a quote from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” — which claims that an ethical and just study of a community must preface an understanding of self. Beyrer uses Pope’s essay as a means to approach whether “scientific evidence and method [are] inherently in conflict with faith.” Consider the history of medicine from Hippocrates to the current era. It is full of a myriad of perspectives, faith based or not. To that point, some might ask, whether the variety of faith or non-faith motivations can all equally benefit a community — might some approaches prove more effective? After all, if a practitioner’s motivation stems from a form of altruism outside of the community, does it truly benefit the community? This question appears to renounce individual motivations that do not intersect with the community’s principles or beliefs, but on its own it fails to address the question at hand — the question of man. Not the question of men but of man.

Suffering can manifest in various forms: a genetic disease or inherited trait; an acquired ailment or condition; the result of war against mankind. Suffering does not discriminate; however, the practitioner does. 

Practitioners — physicians, nurses, public health officials or policymakers — approach scenarios with their own biases and preconceived notions. Their religious affiliation, perhaps, plays the most influential role in their interpretation of morality. How can spirituality be linked with health if “x” treatment conflicts with “y” belief? The best generalized answer is knowing yourself — knowing your biases and knowing your motivations. The practitioner should not enter the sphere of medicine or health evangelically, that is, to promote their belief structures on an unwilling subject. This would be unethical. The practitioner works as a servant. They inform and educate, they provide care and provision, they mentor and guide. All for what — for the fulfillment in the relinquishment of suffering. 

Therefore, “know thyself” and approach the integration of faith and health with caution, examining the self and only the self. 

So, again, I ask whether faith and health can intersect. The answer is yes — with a caveat. The two intersect only if the motivation for practicing is to meet patients on their terms, in their environment, based on their needs. With this condition met, practitioners have the freedom to intervene how they see best. They have entered a space where they practice outside of themselves with a motivation outside of themselves. Ideally, practitioners are motivated for the betterment and improved quality of life of their patient. Any other approach begins down a path contaminated with a focus on self that will ultimately harm the patient.

As cited by Beyrer: 

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan …
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great…”
Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle II (1734)

JOSEPH WILLIAMS is an MPH candidate at the Yale School of Public Health. Contact him at joseph.williams@yale.edu.