May 13, 2015

Believe it or not…

By Andrew M. Harrison

By Dr. Jim Maher

How can Mayo Clinic best honor the axis of diversity that might be called "faith," "belief," "unbelief," or "religion" and what leadership can be shown within Mayo Clinic's academic environment (the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine)? These were some of the questions that motivated a fascinating lunch session on May 11, 2015, organized by the College of Medicine Office for Diversity, and featuring a delightful panel representing a sampling of four faith traditions different from the nominal Christianity that typified 78% of Americans in 2010. The premise of the discussion ("Religious Diversity in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine: Positive Expression, Ongoing Challenges") was that global faith traditions, including agnosticism and atheism, are richly diverse, and the diversity of faith traditions among members of the Mayo Clinic workforce and Mayo Clinic patients is far greater than the faith diversity of the local communities that host Mayo Clinic campuses. Today's panel captured the perspectives of Reformed Judaism, Islam, the Sikh faith, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The scope of the conversation allowed panelists to describe the distinctives of their respective faith traditions, common misconceptions, and their experiences as people of faith in the Mayo Clinic environment. There were rich differences in the core articles of faith for the traditions, and in how the different faith communities interact with those outside each faith.

DataData presented by Dr. Dennis C. Mays. Photos by Andrew M. Harrison

How is Mayo Clinic doing with respect to celebrating religious tolerance? The message emerging from the panel was "pretty well." Panelist Dr. Randal Thomas offered that the Mayo Clinic environment of discussion around personal faith or agnosticism/atheism was, in his experience, neither hostile nor openly conducive, but respectfully indifferent. The other panelists agreed, and Dr. Ravinder Singh suggested that a focus on professionalism has moved discussion of faith or agnosticism to a sphere dictated by personal conversation largely at the instigation of individuals within the institution. Postdoctoral fellow Karim Mustafa affirmed that he had not experienced discrimination or hostility within the Mayo Clinic environment.

IntroductionIntroductions and panel moderation by Barbara L. Jordan

So that all sounded refreshingly upbeat. Where do we need to improve?  Panelist Sarah Lund, a student in Mayo Medical School, helped the audience come to terms with remaining gaps. In response to an audience question highlighting the peculiar historical institutional collaboration between a Roman Catholic (Franciscan) hospital, a Protestant (Methodist) hospital, and the distinctively agnostic character of the Mayo brothers and their family, it was pointed out that the institution, perhaps not surprisingly, sends mixed signals to its employees and patients. Example: multiple manger scenes and Christmas trees appear seasonally in some parts of Mayo campuses, obviously sanctioned by the institution, suggesting to some that those from non-Christian traditions might not be appreciated or well-served as guests. The point was that symbolism is powerful, and Mayo Clinic hasn't quite figured out if it is a secular and diverse humanitarian institution or an amalgam of various sacred and secular traditions employing a religiously-diverse workforce, while trying to serve an even more diverse patient population. Navigating the diversity of belief, non-belief, symbolism, and inclusion is a challenge for many large organizations, including governments, universities, and academic medical centers.

PanelistsPanelists (left to right) Sarah R. Lund, Karim M. Mustafa, Dr. Ravinder J. Singh, and Dr. Randal J. Thomas

Where do we go from here?  I've been thinking about this all afternoon. Two points come to mind. First, if we are truly interested in a search for truth, I suggest that we should deeply respect one another in our choices about faith in a truth beyond us, or even our faith that there is no truth beyond us. However, beyond respect, we should keep searching for truth because it is self-evident that all faiths cannot be equally true (after all, they are inconsistent with one another), so asking and learning and discussing is necessary if we seek to continue toward the ultimate truth. Second, while I would argue that the search for the ultimate truth of faith, belief, or unbelief is the point of life, it is actually not the point of Mayo Clinic. As my colleague Martin Fernandez-Zapico has eloquently pointed out to me, the point of Mayo Clinic is ultimately not truth but service. Here is where I believe we find our best path to tolerance and inclusion of faith traditions: in order to best serve our patients and their families, we must collaborate across lines of faith, belief, and unbelief to meet the needs of patients. Often that means serving the patient in the context of their current understanding of faith, belief, or unbelief. But sometimes, maybe not often enough, this means answering honest questions with honest answers that might lead to a changed heart and a new understanding of truth.

That's what service looks like.

AudienceThe audience

Interested in more of Jim Maher's thoughts about science and faith?  Check out this post at his personal blog:

Care to join in the broader discussion of experiences and views on the roles of faith, belief, and unbelief in the life of the Mayo Clinic as an academic medical center?  Feel free to comment below.

Editorial comment (AMH): I remember Dr. Maher before he became Dean of Mayo Graduate School and was merely a Professor and leader of Mayo Clinic’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Development. I also know he had the courage to publicly reflect on his faith in this blog (in its earlier iteration) as early as 2009. Although possibly beyond human comprehension, the meaning of life is one of the most fundamental and profound unanswered questions for any human being with any intellectual curiosity. As for how this question intersects with education, diversity, tolerance, and patient care, I am reminded of words told to me by Mayo Clinic internist and master medical educator, Dr. John H. Davidson (Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters, Rabbinical Ordination): we are all waiting for the great abyss.

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I was in attendance and can’t say enough about the quality of content and format, thanks!

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