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From Certainty to Mystery, by Michael Saunders

16 October 2020

Nick Goulding reads a doctor’s reflections on his work, faith, and life

AUTOBIOGRAPHY transports the reader on a journey with the author as companion, but not always a comfortable companion. Such was my experience with From Certainty to Mystery by Dr Michael Saunders. The unfolding narrative runs counter to the usual formula in which transformative spiritual encounters turn the mysteries of life into certainties.

As the title of his book indicates, Saunders takes us on the reverse journey: from religious certainty through stages of increasing doubt to a position that declares that the very mystery of God is an ultimate truth to be discovered. For him, the ultimate challenge is to develop new means of exploration.

Saunders is an experienced clinical neurologist and Anglican priest, and, through a series of discrete essays, we are provided with medical reflections on chronic and debilitating illness interwoven with philosophical and theological discussion on wide-ranging issues with themes such as disability, suffering, depression, and death.

The connecting thread that creates a necklace from these individual beads is the author’s account of his long-term personal experience of muscular dystrophy and the impact that this has had on his faith journey. There is compelling autobiographical progression in the first half of the book. This momentum is lost in later essays, however, when the author detours down several side alleys.

A particularly fascinating pearl in the necklace is the author’s device of describing his own developing medical condition from the independent and dispassionate perspective of a treating physician. Try the exercise for yourself. Think of a traumatic incident in your life. Pare it down to its essential elements and describe it dispassionately from the perspective of an independent observer. Challenging isn’t it? Saunders uses this method powerfully to remind the reader that the breakdown of health can affect anyone at any time, and, second, that, for a physician, there can be a real tension between a professional understanding of disease and its personal impact on self, family, and faith.

The author describes his faith as permissive rather than orthodox, and one can see an influence of the Sea of Faith movement in his writings. His essential treatise is that religious exclusivity, dogma, and literalism will eventually lead to the extinction of the Church. He suggests that, for Christianity to be relevant to 21st-century Western civilisation, there needs to be a more enlightened examination of the basic tenets of faith from a metaphorical and mythological perspective, embracing religious pluralism.

To reach this destination, he urges the same energy and thrust of inquiry in the pursuit of religious enlightenment as that which marked the explosion of scientific and medical enterprise over the past two centuries. In the end, our paths were destined to diverge, but I found the journey fascinating.


The Revd Nick Goulding is Professor of Pharmacology and Medical Education at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.


From Certainty to Mystery
Michael Saunders
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