Cancer and Theology

Jake Bouma has cancer. That sucks. He’s hoping to parlay that cancer into some good conversation, however, by hosting a Cancer and Theology series at his blog. He’s recruited folks like David Fitch, Brian McLaren, Martin Marty, Carol Howard Merritt, and yours truly. He describes the series thusly (and if you click through to his blog you’ll see an old picture of me in a purple shirt!):

The guest bloggers I have assembled (listed below) will be doing what Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke call deliberative theology or deliberative theological reflection. In their book How To Think Theologically, Stone and Duke define deliberative theology thusly:

“Deliberative theology is the understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions. This sort of reflection is sometimes called second-order theology, in that it follows upon and looks back over the implicit understandings embedded in the life of faith.”1

I’ve specifically requested that the guest bloggers not reflect on my personal experience with cancer, but rather on cancer generally speaking, as a common human (and therefore religious) phenomenon. Should they choose, I’ve provided them with prompts such as “What is the relationship between cancer and God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?” and “How is God present during the ‘process’ of cancer (sickness to diagnosis to treatment to recovery)?” and “Can/does God work through medical technology and advances in medicine in general?” These and other questions will be considered by the guest bloggers below over the course of the next several months. This is the first and primary objective.

The second objective of the Cancer & Theology series is to look at what Stone and Duke call embedded theology or first-order theology and examine how embedded theologies relate to individuals’ responses to cancer and the people who have it. Think of embedded theology is the theology that we carry with us in our subconscious, or the theology that has not yet been critically examined.

via — Fides quarens intellectum..

  • Jay

    Watching my mom die from cancer made me realize that too many of us put theology first, due to the fact I got more e-mails about my gay affirming theology then concern over the suffering cancer had brought upon my family. Cancer strips people down to expose a kinda of embedded theology.

  • EricG

    I am 39 and have terminal cancer. Looking forward to this very much. As I read his larger post, the posts will be addressing an important topic — what people say to someone suffering from cancer, and the embedded theology it reflects.

    This is a very importan topic — in my experience, the most stupid things that are said to someone with cancer usually come from the more religious among us.

    A large foundation that supports young people with cancer collected some of the real-life stuff people have said to those with cancer. A friend of mine has collected it some of it at this link:

    • ME

      Hey Eric, if we sat next to each other on a plane flight and you told me (which I doubt you would) that you had terminal cancer, what kind of response from me would you welcome?

      • Evelyn

        ME, when someone has a terminal illness it just sucks (like Tony said). If you want to try to figure out how to rationally approach someone with a terminal illness, you can use the “Kubler-Ross” (or other) model of the stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages can happen at any time, last for any duration, and are in no specific order. Some of the quotes in Eric’s link look like they came from someone in an angry stage – in this stage the person will just be pissed off by the fact that you are there and it doesn’t matter much what you say.

        Spiritual advice can seem really obnoxious and rude when someone is suffering because it is a complicated and very personal process. If the person who is suffering wishes to see the good things that have come out of their suffering, they may do so but shouldn’t feel obligated to or like a failure if they simply can’t. Personally, I think people should fight for their lives but depression can accompany the suffering and lead people to not want to fight any more. I think it’s best to try to be compassionate and supportive of whatever the person who is suffering wants.

        Theologically, Jesus gives us a model for suffering by his actions following the last supper up until his death on the cross. He knows the suffering is coming, in Gethsemane he prays to God to not make him have to suffer (he is NOT a willing martyr), he forgives his tormenters, he carries his burden, and stays faithful until the very end. I think that Jesus thought that God was on his side and he was waiting for a miracle right up until the very end when he asked God why he had been forsaken. If you want to be “Christian” about it, you can try to follow Jesus model but I wouldn’t fault anyone who can’t.

    • Evelyn

      Eric, you’re in my prayers.

  • EricG

    ME — interesting question; for some reason I find it easier to identify what not to say, rather than what would be good to say. What I tend to say to others with a bad diagnosis, if I don’t know them well, is: I’m sorry that you are going through this. And then, *if* it feels appropriate, I very briefly restate what I understand them to be experiencing (e.g., the treatments sound difficult, etc.). That can leave it open for them to say more if they want to.

    If you know the person well, there is obviously more you can do — listen well (rather than trying to make point), comment on how brave or tough the person seems to be, take time to see how the person is doing.

    Evelyn — interesting points, and I agree with much of what you say (and thanks for the prayers). But I don’t think I agree that most of those people reacted that way merely because they were in an anger stage; they would probably react negatively to those kinds of comments no matter what state they were in.

  • ME

    Thanks, Eric and Evelyn. And Eric, of course I hope things are going as well as they can for you.

    How has your diagnosis changed your embedded theology?

  • EricG

    ME – my inherited views regarding God’s sovereignty and prayer are very different from what they used to be. I can’t participate in many worship songs.

    It is interesting, because many cancer patients move in the opposite direction from the way I have. They are drawn to the view that God directs and has a purpose for everything. I find it much harder to accept.