“Risk Floating in the Ether”—A Conversation on Faith and Health

An Interview with Robert Lyman Potter, M.D., Ph.D., by Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D.

Dr. Robert Potter’s professional life has combined medical practice, teaching, and bioethics consultation. He practiced internal medicine and geriatrics for 30 years while teaching in a community hospital affiliated with the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He is board certified in internal medicine and geriatrics, and has been elected as Fellow of the American College of Physicians. Dr. Potter also holds a Ph.D. in religion, psychology, and ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School. From 1994 until his retirement in 2004, he was the bioethics scholar, instructor, and consultant for the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, MO. From 2004 to 2014, he was Senior Scholar for the Center for Ethics in Healthcare at Oregon Health and Science University. Currently Dr. Potter is a scientific adviser for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Science for Seminaries” grant project at Multnomah Biblical Seminary.

PLM: Dr. Potter, you have witnessed a great amount of change over your many years of service in medicine. You often quip that 90% of what you took to be fact back in medical school no longer stands as true. What are a few of the dramatic changes you have witnessed over the years?

RLP:  The main positive change in medical philosophy is an awareness of the need to approach the patient as a whole person who exists in a matrix of relationships. At the same time a negative counter current has developed that causes young professionals, especially, to interpret the patient through facts from the laboratory, x-ray, or other physical measurements; they examine the reports rather than the person. These two health seeking strategies struggle with one another in today’s practice climate.

PLM: You have noted in course lectures on death and dying at Multnomah Biblical Seminary that you have observed a dramatic change in medicine, including palliative care, that reflects greater sensitivity to spiritual concerns. What are some examples? What are some published sources that you would encourage others to study in relation to this shift?

RLP:  Physicians and nurses are now more willing to ask patients about their spiritual lives. I think that is partly because the expected answers may be more in existential terms than religious terms. The shift to secular language that claims to be spiritual rather than religious is easier for the health care provider to understand. I encourage your readers to follow thought leaders such as Daniel Sulmasy, M.D. at the University of Chicago Medical School, and Christina Puchalski, M.D. at George Washington University Medical School.

PLM: You practiced traditional scientific medicine in various settings, and yet you also received a doctorate and taught in religion, psychology, and ethics. For some, your career might be viewed as a risk of floating in the ether (Dr. Potter actually used this language when agreeing to do this interview with me!). In a world where the New Atheist voices often appear loudest, you have argued in various secular and faith settings that we must seek to bridge the gap between faith and science, while safeguarding the integrity of the two domains. Why is this important? How do you personally go about bridging and safeguarding these domains?

RLP:  I was raised to be a Christian person who held fast to faith. I was also educated to be a scientist. It was my personal quest to bridge whatever gap I experienced between the two ways of experiencing the world. I found a deep level of integration of faith and science that allows me to experience by life as a meaningful whole. It is my conviction that a whole-some life is one lived in relation to God who is experienced through all the other relationships within which I exist—my self with myself, others, and the created world. Through this matrix of energetic relationships, I am oriented to God and motivated by God to live fully engaged. This wholesomeness is real health and well-being.

PLM: Do you have a final word for our readers?

RLP: I recommend that the most direct way to get in touch with a science-filled faith is to study the wonder of the world. Diving deep into the complex beauty and awesomeness of nature has been a path to God’s revelation for me. From microbiology to cosmology, the world wonders constantly amaze and lure me into a sense of gratitude for all that is.

Here is an audio of a talk Dr. Potter gave at Multnomah University’s Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins’ spring 2016 conference titled “Church and Science: Partners for the Common Good.” The title of the talk is “Faith and Health.”

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About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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