Doctors have delivered a 1 lb. 13 oz. baby girl from Susan Torres, a pregnant woman from Arlington, Virginia who had been on life support for three months since a cancer-induced stroke left her brain-dead. At the request of Torres's husband, doctors kept her body alive long enough for the child to have a chance of life outside the womb, carefully monitoring both patients to make sure the cancer did not spread to the developing baby. When the child was finally delivered, the family released a statement thanking God, and many hailed the birth a miracle.
The faith of the family, the race against time, the coolheaded, sure-handed medical staff--the story is nothing short of inspirational. But skeptics might wonder why God so often gets credit for the good work of trained physicians. Where is the line between thanking Providence and thanking Technology? In other words, are “miracles” such as the one in Virginia miracles of God or miracles of science?
In the minds of many, there is a vague notion that somehow God and science are necessarily in competition. We see this opposition take form in the debates between creationism and evolution, between church and state, where faith is pitted against reason, the secular against the sacred. Why isn't this opposition more often transferred to our discussions of medicine as well?
The reason may be that physicians recognize more readily the relationship between God and science. A recent study by the University of Chicago showed that seventy-six percent of physicians believe in God, and fifty-five percent say their faith influences their medical practice. It seems that the dichotomy between faith and science, while common in popular discourse, is not as popular as among doctors themselves.
It is obvious that something great happened in Virginia and someone is to thank for it. But in matters such as this, we need not thank God to the exclusion of thanking the doctors, or vice versa. The work of doctors and the work of God are inextricably linked.
We are, after all, created in the image of a creative God. We have reason, intelligence, creativity, and an inherently entrepreneurial approach to the mysteries of the world. We are Curious Georges who want not only to know how the big machine works, but how we can work the machine to serve ourselves and one another.
This is exactly the nature of medicine. Medicine is a journey into the unknown, further up and further into the mysteries of life. Most doctors know that they do not have all the answers, and as the University of Chicago study shows, no one knows this better than the doctors themselves.
It is an important truth that our creative acts, including our medical acts, are by nature derivative and collaborative . Doctors receive their talents from God, and insofar as their technological work cooperates with God's work--insofar as their goals are in keeping with God's goals--the thanks for technological miracle-working are rightly given both to God and to the physicians themselves.
The key here is that when doctors employ their talents as they did recently in Virginia, they cooperate with God in the service of life. In essence, they collaborate with life; they do not control it and do not create it. (Notice that no one calls abortion and euthanasia 'miracles of science.') It is telling that Torres's doctor said it was “almost miraculous” that Torres made it as long as she did. Doctors simply don't know how things will turn out, and they know that they don't know it.
So it should be no surprise that, by and large, doctors believe in God and practice accordingly. It should be no surprise that the term miracle is often used when speaking of successful, daring medical procedures. It should be no surprise that patients who receive state-of-the-art treatment from doctors thank God for it.
Faith and reason, religion and science: we ought to stop framing these terms in the context of competition. Rather, they testify to a collaborative, communal relationship between God and man, and not to some falsely intrinsic opposition.