Sunday, 10 February 2013

On Holistic Faith and Sympathetic Agnosticism

From Canon Geoff Houghton, Rector of Trinity.

IT was with considerable surprise that I read Ramsay Cudlipp's comment (JEP 26 January) on the subject of hospital chaplaincy - not at his atheistic stance, to which he is entitled and which he is free to expound, but at his evident lack of research into his subject matter, compounded by a most ungracious writing style.

Why in this age, he asks, is there a need for paid chaplaincy work across our health service? The answer in the most basic terms is supply and demand: if there were no call for it from patients and staff, the hospital and faith groups would not be working together to provide it. As it is, there is a long-established team of chaplains which needs augmenting (hence the recruitment), and which is working hard with other health care professionals to deliver holistic care of body, mind and spirit.

I was privileged to spend ten years as a chaplain to our wonderful hospice, where I was often asked to come alongside patients who were beyond acute clinical intervention and where trite answers to the big questions had no place. In such a context, you really do have to work out what you believe.

While some asked for and took comfort from overtly religious rites, others were grateful for the gifts of 'presence', 'grace' and 'abiding' that I and other members of the chaplaincy team endeavoured to bring.

Some I was able to help, others not, but I am left in no doubt that caring for patients' spiritual needs, in the broadest sense of that word, is hugely important alongside and as part of the care of their body and mind. (1)

Geoff Houghton is certainly right in the need for less overtly religious rites, and what he terms the gifts of 'presence', 'grace' and 'abiding'. As sociologist of religion Paul Heelas shows in his book "The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality ", there is a change in the way people think of themselves.

Far fewer people are likely to be openly religious, in the way in which they practice their faith, such as going to church. But the explosion of books in the "Mind, Body, Spirit" area, and the popularity of events such as the Mind, Body, Spirit fairs shows that far from embracing atheism, most people instead tend to be more open minded. They would probably affirm that they are "spiritual" rather than "religious". The method of Richard Dawkin's, in his "Enemies of Reason" documentary, was to sneer at these people, rather like the atheist letter writers of the JEP.

But I think that even people of a more humanistic persuasion can benefit from a hospital chaplain, although not perhaps the more radical atheists, for whom the material world is pretty much understood. I've been to two humanistic funerals, where there was a decision made not to have any elements that were overtly religious in the ceremony (held at the crematorium).

The people who helped to lead those occasions, and worked on what was to be said, and the format of the ceremony, were a rector and a curate from the Anglican church. They were very sensitive to not sneaking in anything religious; that would be dishonest. But they brought a gift of presence, an ability to know that occasions such as funerals are when people need help, and they were there, when asked. They did certainly not bring trite answers to big questions.

That it is entirely possible for a humanist who declared herself an atheist (on occasion) to work together both on her father's funeral and then on mother's funeral with a Jersey Rector of a Parish Church seems to be at odds with the more militant atheists writing letters to the Jersey Evening Post. At her mother's funeral, I was present to give support as her partner, and I had no idea that a Rector whom I knew would turn up (without dog collar or traditional clerical garb), and lead the service they had worked upon with considerable sensitivity and care.

It surprised me then; it would not surprise me now. We draw lines and set up barriers at our peril, pigeon holing people by belief. But the best people are those who can cross those barriers when needed to provide a "holistic care of body, mind and spirit". Can atheists provide that for the hospital? Perhaps, but in terms of drawing not just upon counselling skills, but also on the traditional wisdom of ages handed down, it is probably more likely that a religious person can provide broader sympathies.

That's not to say that everyone religious would be suitable; we all probably know religious bigots. Christianity, for example, has seen fundamentalists and very rigid patterns of thought. But that also means that it is as aware of the dangers of that mindset; reading the letters in the paper from self-professed atheists, I'm not sure they'd lend much in the way of a sympathetic ear to a patient.

Clearly not all atheists, or agnostics, are rigid and unsympathetic; but the vociferous ones who rant away certainly are not likely to be in their number. One of the most sympathetic agnostics to religious people was evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, one of my own personal heroes of science (for whom I owe a great debt of gratitude), and this is one of my favourite anecdotes told by him in one of his many articles:

Incongruous places often inspire anomalous stories. In early 1984, I spent several nights at the Vatican housed in a hotel built for itinerant priests. While pondering over such puzzling issues as the intended function of the bidets in each bathroom, and hungering for something other than plum jam on my breakfast rolls (why did the basket only contain hundreds of identical plum packets and not a one of, say, strawberry?), I encountered yet another among the innumerable issues of contrasting cultures that can make life so interesting. Our crowd (present in Rome for a meeting on nuclear winter sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) shared the hotel with a group of French and Italian Jesuit priests who were also professional scientists.

At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been troubling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about "scientific creationism"? One asked me: "Is evolution really in some kind of trouble. and if so, what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both entirely satisfactory and utterly overwhelming. Have I missed something?"

A lively pastiche of French, Italian, and English conversation then ensued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed reassured by my general answer: Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history-a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean. We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief. (2)


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