Faith-sharing in professional practice

By Brian Edgar

How should Christians who are professionals – specifically, in this case, health professionals share their faith? Of course, being a pastor or theologian is a very different experience, so my words have to be assessed in that light although I did become personally familiar with these issues over some years in the so-called ‘secular’ workforce. Moreover, people are people in every situation and we ought not exaggerate the differences and, while fully accepting that the context is very important it would be a serious mistake to think that the distinction our culture makes between the roles of a pastor and a medical practitioner ought to be viewed as they are – as two fundamentally separate roles.  Indeed, the main point of what I want to say here is that the cultural divide between faith and work has been exaggerated by a particular form of western secularism which can in fact be challenged and changed without necessarily giving up the idea of being a ‘secular’ society.

This article first appeared in “Faith in Practice” in Luke’s Journal (Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship of Australia Inc), Volume 12, No. 3: November 2007, 3-4

Discerning the social consensus

There is a social consensus concerning all sorts of situations, including the role of faith in professional and other public contexts.  Inevitably, the precise form of this consensus changes over time and at the moment there is a significant cultural debate, at a general level, about what faith means in a pluralist and secular society. This affects perceptions of what is appropriate at more specific levels of individual relationships.

In a professional context one deals with complex beings with moral, psychological and spiritual needs as well as physical ones, and relating to the spiritual dimension means recognising the full humanity of the person.  In matters of faith a health professional may see themselves as responding to indications that the person they are relating to is willing or wanting to pursue spiritual matters which go beyond the purely physical reason for initiating the consultation. Or they may want to introduce spiritual issues into the relationship themselves because they are aware of a need of which the other is unaware.  Someone else, however, may see this as a violation of the agreed nature of the relationship and a betrayal of trust.

Towards one end of the spectrum are those who are naïve concerning the nature of the social consensus which exists and who may therefore go too far in pursuing spiritual matters.  At the opposite end are those who are overly rigid in their approach. They are likely to want any mention of spirituality excluded from professional discourse and tend to operate on the assumption that it ought to be crystal clear about these ‘rules’ – even if they are not written down. Sometimes they simply appeal to the general mores of our culture.

Those who want to relate to people holistically are taking a line which is very amenable to current Christian thinking which aims to overcome the dualisms which are so common in our society and which are related to that ultimate modernist distinction between faith as private opinion and science as public fact.  This distinction has been much criticised in theological and philosophical circles but remains profoundly influential in popular thought.

Modern western secularism

Modern western society has taken a profoundly analytical approach to science, education, technology and religion.  It operates according to the scientific equivalent of the military maxim, ‘divide and conquer’ and it has proved to be an extremely powerful tool for examining the physical world.  In the process, however, it has created separate disciplines and its methodology has been appropriated in ways which are less than helpful.  We have separated whole areas of life in education and science with nary a connection between them.  In recent times while universities – those bastions of analytical thinking – have made tentative steps towards becoming more synthetic (through integrative studies and even – shock! horror! – the introduction of theological studies in some places) they are very small steps and it is still very difficult to get the message through to other places.  Questions about the appropriateness of faith sharing in the context of a professional relationship is simply the personal parallel to the general debate about the place of religion in public life.

Amanda Vanstone (in the Australian Quarterly 18/6/07) argues that religion is better left out of the public arena and she praises those politicians who are believers who keep their faith private and who do not allow it to become a part of their political life. As long as arguments such as these are sustained in the public arena then there will be pressure to definitively exclude faith from any professional relationship.

This kind of hard-line secularism which seeks the removal of the religious from every area of life, except the purely private, is not, however, the only option. A softer secularism accepts that religious belief is an integral part of life and accepts its role throughout society, but simply insists that it is not appropriate for public authorities to preference one particular belief system (whether explicitly religious or some equivalent secular worldview) on purely on religious grounds.

Holding to a soft secularism does not mean that nothing ought to regulate the way the spiritual dimension of a professional relationship is conducted.  However, it does allow that a spiritual dimension is always present – even when it is unobserved or unattended to. Modern western society’s consistent and radical exclusion of spirituality from most areas of life must be seen for what it is: unusual! Indeed, it seems absurd in other contexts.

In his book Christianity Rediscovered (SCM, 1978) Vincent Donovan recounts how for twenty years Catholic mission among the Masai focused on education, health and agriculture. The work was important as there was great need in these areas.  The only Christian Masai were a few schoolboys who, when they left school were scattered, isolated and, inevitably spiritually depressed. Donovan gained permission to leave his work and go to the Masai saying that he no longer wanted to talk about schools or hospitals but about God in the life of the Masai and the message of Christianity.  The first person he spoke to responded immediately with a question, ‘Why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’   The elders eagerly gathered together to listen.  The significance of this response deepened when he went to five other sections of the Masai people and all, without exception, asked the same question, ‘Why have you not said this before?’

Western assumptions about the place and the priority of faith in life have to be seen as what they are – assumptions which, on the one hand inevitably, and rightly affect the way we relate to people, but also, on the other hand, as cultural rather than absolute principles. They are assumptions which can be challenged and which do change over time.

Whose spirituality?

One of the critical questions in dealing with the spiritual dimension of any relationship concerns the question of whose needs are being met.   It could be that a medical practitioner who raises spiritual matters is acting to fulfil their own sense of need. Consequently, the easy option is for those of faith simply to agree with the radically secularist approach that faith ought to be completely excluded from professional relationships. But if that principle were to be applied consistently throughout other social situations then faith will continue to be alienated from most areas of life.  It would be a de facto acceptance of a fairly strong version of secularism and the view that life is best when divided into segments.

It could be argued that the introduction of spiritual issues, even though the other person is unaware of their need (for healing or salvation) does not diminish their reality or importance.  And while, ethically speaking, a professional ought not abuse the privileges of their relationship it is probably inevitable that a tension will sometimes develop between a practitioner’s perceptions of responsibility to the most fundamental spiritual needs of the individual and the social consensus which is the basis for the consultation.

Moreover, the spiritual dimension of life actually exists in more diverse forms than the secularist usually allows. It may be hidden under secular terminology and concepts but it simply relates to whatever are the deepest issues in a person’s life and to whatever they consider to be of the highest importance.

Secular spirituality

These functional, secular equivalents to faith and spirituality are, of course, generally considered to be acceptable issues for professional discourse.  In fact not dealing with matters of family (and thus with relationships and life satisfaction), or vocation (and thus with finance and stress levels) or mental state (and thus with despair and frustration – although not with faith or hope!) might be considered to lead to a poor assessment of the overall situation.

In other words, those who would exclude all reference to faith and spirituality fail to recognise that they are proposing an imbalance which preferences their own stance of ‘faith’ concerning the nature of humanity. Their view may be that life is nothing other than a set of physical entities and actions or it may be a view of life as the physical plus a more intangible  relational, emotional, psychological and purposeful (but not religious) dimension.  In either case it operates as a functional equivalent to faith.

Let us not think that the medical community has a unique problem here. Certainly the details of the situation and its intensity may be stronger but it exists for others – such as airline stewards. The recent controversy with British Airways in the UK concerning the appropriateness of an attendant wearing a cross on a necklace shows that problems concerning the relationship of faith and work can occur in all sorts of situations.

Finding a way

Nor is this an issue unique to Christianity.  Not so long ago my daughter visited a registered medical doctor she had not consulted previously. My wife was also present and as part of the examination the doctor indicated that she was going to swing a crystal around as part of what I can only assume was a form of Reiki. The aim is to have a diagnosis based on discerning the individual’s meridians (energy flows) and chakras (energy centres). Developed in the late 19th century, it is essentially a New Age version of an ancient Buddhist healing technique. Reiki has no credible scientific basis and there is no evidence for its efficacy in controlled trials. It appears to pose no medical danger except that it may inhibit orthodox diagnosis and treatment.

There is clearly a need for a principle of reciprocity. What one accepts as acceptable for one’s own position has to be acceptable for others.  And this has to include a recognition by secularists that their own non-religious and secular worldview cannot be assumed to be the absolute standard which is exempt from analysis.

In a secular society one does not preference one belief system above another purely on religious grounds. In a medical consultation one would only preference Reiki if it could be rationally or scientifically demonstrated that its diagnosis was superior to other forms.  In such a situation the basis for preferencing it would not be religious but scientific – if that is the accepted basis for the consultation. But the rationale has to be seen as contextual (it relates to a medical consultation) and not as an absolute – which is what the secularist often does.

All in all, the responsibilities of a professional who is also a Christian can be complex. At the heart of the matter is the need to defend the integrity of both of the persons involved in a consultation, while recognising the specific responsibilities which lie with the professional. It means respecting rights and acting responsibly while, at the same time, maintaining the integrity of being a Christian and therefore viewing people holistically – and therefore spiritually – whether this is explicit or not. It is important to pay attention to the social consensus and the expectations concerning specific situations which are derived from it while also understanding that the expression of the general principles can change from time to time.

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