Awhile ago there was a display at my medical school titled “The Art of Pathology”. On display were pictures of human flesh–perhaps a microscope slide of a liver with fatty deposits, a section of a lung destroyed by smoking, or a heart with a large infarction.
I spent most of this morning looking at slides of diseased organs, and probably the last thing that might have gone through my head is “What a beautiful image.” Each organ had caused someone great pain. Then it had killed them. I don’t know much about art, but if art is something beautiful, then pathology slides and sections are most definitely not art. Pathology is death, and death is not beautiful.
Looking at pictures of dying organs is an impersonal way to learn medicine.I study alone, and while I’m studying things that are relevant to all of us, I don’t actually get to interact with any people. One image I saw this morning was of a massive infarct in the temporal lobe of a brain. I don’t get to comfort this person–I only get to see the aftermath. And the aftermath is gruesome. Whatever used to be in the infarcted section of the brain has been replaced by a huge, gaping hole. Even if, by some method, we could extract memories and thoughts from the connections and organization of neurons in a brain, we couldn’t extract any memories from this brain. There was just no structure left. Perhaps she lost function slowly as successive parts of her brain succumbed. Perhaps her memories blinked out of existence one by one, like in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Studying pathology is impersonal because each of us is more than just the sum of our parts. I am different from my body, because I am a soul, and God has blessed me with a body to interact with others and experience life. The difference between staring at books all day and seeing patients on the wards is that patients have souls. Patients can smile, cry, and express their concerns. But the world is tainted by sin, and our bodies–vessels for our souls–are dying. Pathology is happening in each of us, and eventually, one of our pathologies will kill us.
“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
-Genesis 3:19 (ESV)
If pathology is art (I still have serious doubts), it’s because it reveals us as we really are–as dust. Slowly, imperceptibly, we’re broken down into dust, and eventually, we’ll return to dust. If we’re followers of the Lord, dust isn’t the end of us. As our bodies decay, our souls are perfected.
In Ephesians, Paul talks about our “old self.” If we’ve been renewed as Christians, we are new. The part of us that makes mistakes, that hurts people we love, that desires comfort more than service to God–that part of us is old, and God is working in us to destroy the old and build up the new. Just like our bodies, the “old self” is being destroyed. Death and pathology is God’s judgement on sin, and each of us will die. But this judgement is out of love. The parts of us we hate are falling away, and as we grow in closeness to the Lord, the new self grows in vitality. Once we’ve finally died and been made new, what more could we want? We’ll be with God, and in God’s presence “is fullness of joy; in [his] right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Psalm 16:11)
“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
-1 Corinthians 15:50-57 (ESV)