Last night I got to see one of my favourite (is “favourite” a theological category?) living theologians deliver a lecture at Regis College at the Toronto School of Theology on the topic, “Suffering Presence: Twenty-Five Years Later.” The lecture consisted of a number of insights and reflections 25 years after the publications of this book.
As someone who enjoys theology and hopes to be engaged in both pastoral ministry as well as chaplaincy in the medical community I found the lecture really great. I won’t summarize the whole talk for you but below are a few points that stood out to me in particular.
(1) I think the overarching theme that Hauerwas wanted us to wrestle with was how we approach suffering. Hauerwas rightly noted that we live in a culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Heck, we even try to avoid aging at all costs because, well, the older you get the closer you come to death (no offense, mom). Hauerwas mentioned that when he gives these sorts of talks to students and professionals he usually begins by asking people how they want to die (!). The usual response is something along the lines of, “quietly and in my sleep.” “Quietly”, because we don’t want to be a burden to our family and friends and, “in my sleep” because we don’t want to know that we’re dying. What does this tell us about how we view life, death, and humanity?
Hauerwas suggested that we want to die in such a way as to not be a burden to our families and friends because we have a view of the human body that is isolated from others (so, we wouldn’t want the suffering of our bodies to encroach on the lives of other bodies). Part of the reason for this view, argues Hauerwas, is that we lack an understanding of the telos of the human body. This is evident in the fact that for most medical students their first patient (in med school) is a corpse. Literally. This has shaped and is shaped by a particular philosophy of the human body. It is essentially a machine. From examining a corpse we can learn all about the human body, how it functions, what it looks like and so on. But a dead body is very different from a living body. Thus, it is a fundamental mistake of medicine to understand the body as mechanistic. Living bodies are storied bodies. Rooted in a complex web of narratives and experiences. Therefore, a malfunctioning liver isn’t simply a malfunctioning liver and how you treat such a liver may differ based on whether the liver in question belongs to Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith. Why? Because these are storied people and health and medicine fails us if we simply view them as mechanistic and proceed accordingly.
(2) It is possible to be ill and yet healthy. Likewise, one could be free of illness and be unhealthy. For Hauerwas, this is because, “health is membership in a community,” (quoting Wendell Berry). A medical system which understands the human body as fundamentally mechanistic and autonomous is concerned with delivering a product to consumers (Dr.’s want to keep their patients happy, after all) and fails to understand the storied nature of the body. Here, there can be no hard distinction (as often can be in the medical community) between the physical and the spiritual for then we’re back to understanding the body as mechanistic, as a corpse rather than living. We could be deathly ill and at the same time healthy because, as Hauerwas argues, who we are is most determined by the relationships of our bodies to other bodies (I would think here of other human creatures, the non-human creature, and Jesus and his Body). This has obvious implications for the church. One of the implications Hauerwas chose to draw out was the need for morally formed ministers. He said, and I think rightly, that people don’t generally believe that an ill trained priest can damage their eternal salvation but they do believe that an ill trained doctor can damage their health. Here, Hauerwas contrasted seminaries with medical schools arguing the medical schools form more moral people (Dr.’s are trained to offer unconditional care to their patients. Even if the person before them with a heart condition is a scum-of-the-earth child molester the Dr. is obliged to care for them. This, says Hauerwas, is a true moral commitment to the health of the other). Hauerwas argued that the Psalmists plea to be saved from death was because they feared God. They wanted to stand before God as righteous. Contrast this with our plea to be saved from death today, which comes not from a fear of God but from a fear of death. The significance of this shift should not be lost on us.
(3) The body that the church presents to be cared for is not the isolated body but the baptized body. Here is where I thought the real crux of Hauerwas’ argument lay, in the statement: “Suffering can be a gift that makes more intimate our connection with God and one another.” The church presents a body to be cared for that understands suffering in a fundamentally different way than the isolated body. Suffering and death do not need to be avoided at all costs and prolonged so that we can “die without knowing it”. Rather, we can face suffering as a gift that draws us deeper into communion with others and with God. Because it is the baptized body death is no longer feared for our deaths have been united in baptism with Christ’s death. Death has been transformed so that it is no longer to be seen as the end of life but rather entrance in a new, eternal, resurrection life with Christ. Our hope is therefore not to avoid suffering and die in peace but rather our hope is resurrection life.
(4) This view of health (as, “membership in a [Christian] community”) can form patients differently than the dominant understanding of health (as illness free, or health as cure). The Christian view of health forms patients who want to be cured but do not seek the cure at all costs. Quite literally, it forms patients who are patient. The greatest gift that could be given here is not a cure but presence. To be present with someone, to offer them the gift of friendship, in their illness or as they journey through death is a gift that far outweighs a cure. We can offer the gift of friendship when there is no cure to offer. Christian health, thus, means reliance on Christ and his church even in the face of suffering and death. Human finitude can be welcomed as a gift. We must learn, then, to suffer without losing hope. We must learn to sit with one another in the shadow of the valley of death.
(5) The ways that Christians pray (for health, healing etc) reveals how we approach illness and health the same as the world. So often, Christian prayers for health and healing are prayers for a cure, prayers to avoid suffering or even death. Ours prayers, however, are determined not by the valley of the shadow of death but by the presence of the one who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. With Christ we have already died. As noted above, our hope is not to get through life unscathed but the hope of resurrection. To be a Christian is to undergo the training to know how to live out of control. Thus, we need a type of medicine that, “for God’s sake, respects the body that is storied by the cross.”
It really was a fantastic lecture and there is much to dwell on there. If you have not yet read “Suffering Presence” (as I haven’t) you really should!
Now, as an aside, my favourite part of the evening came during the question and answer at the end. The first person to come to the microphone praised Hauerwas as a man of great stature and then proceeded to criticize him by asking something to the extent of, “This all sounds very dualistic, where is the Christianity here?!!” The gentleman wanted a more Christianized version of whatever it was Hauerwas was selling. Hauerwas’ response was, basically, “I hope I didn’t do what you say I did,” (funny!). The second person to ask a question was a very nice and gentle young man from Trinity College (“niceness” is especially prized in certain circles!). This young man proceeded to ask a question that was exactly opposite to the first questioner. His question was basically, “How can we take what you’ve said here and talk about it more rationally?” In other words, he wanted to de-Christianize the talk and make it more palatable for secular professionals. The poor guy. I can only presume that he hadn’t read much Hauerwas prior to coming to the lecture because if he had he would have known that if there is one thing that Hauerwas hates it is liberal Protestantism which does just that, rob Jesus of his particularity and soften the offensive blow of the gospel to make it more palatable. Hauerwas’ response was, in my opinion, an instant classic (and made me literally laugh out loud…sorry questioner): “I have no idea. Run it up the flagpole and see if you can get anyone to salute. The body has a telos, sorry.” Hilarity!
***UPDATE – See the video of the full talk here.