Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Talking of God - but with Whom?

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Talking of God - but with Whom?

Article excerpt

When my son asked me many years ago what it was I did, what it was that I was, I told him quite innocently that I was a teacher and a theologian. He knew what teachers were and the sons of things they did, but he was puzzled by "theologian." "What do theologians do?" he asked, and I replied, "They talk of God." He had evidently noted that when he saw me working I was usually alone-and usually wanted to be left alone-for this talk of "talk" puzzled him anew, and he asked, "With whom?"

I find myself coming back to that question from time to time. As a moral theologian interested in questions of medical ethics, I find myself sometimes in the middle of questions about abortion or euthanasia or the allocation of resources and wanting to talk about God-but with whom?

The answer that I will shortly defend is this: First and fundamentally, theologians may and must talk of God with the community of faith. They may talk of God as well with any who will. They may even dare to speak of God among those who would not or may not speak of God themselves. But in all these conversations there are times and places that the theologian must be still as well. Before I make such belated reply to my son's question, however, I want to sketch a context for the same question and for my response to it in the developments in medical ethics.

There are long and worthy traditions of theological reflection about sickness and healing, about death and dying, about nature and its mastery, about care for the suffering, respect for human agency, and concern for the poor. Long before medical ethics became a distinct field of inquiry, let alone a growth industry in the academy, Christians and others with religious convictions were engaged with the moral questions posed by medical care and trying to answer them in ways appropriate to the ways they talked of God and of the cause of God. There was plenty of foolishness mixed in with the wisdom of these traditions, of course, but there were traditions: resources for the doctors and nurses who tried conscientiously to bring their practice into line with their religious profession, and for the patients attempting to make decisions about their medical care faithful to their religious commitments and loyalties, and for the ministers and other leaders who struggled to find a word of God that would appropriately encourage or admonish the medical professional or the patient.

It is not surprising, therefore, that those who have cared to look have found such religious traditions for this "new" discipline of medical ethics. There is plenty of material for "selective retrieval." Nor is it surprising that, as Leroy Walters observed, religious thinkers played an important role in the "renaissance of medical ethics" in 1965 to 1970.[1] When Paul Ramsey made his "explorations in medical ethics" in the Lyman Beecher lectures,[2] he wrote, to take him at his word, as "a Christian ethicist, and not as some hypothetical common denominator."[3] Ramsey and other religious "bricoleurs" had at their disposal traditions for selective retrieval that others simply did not have when new powers of medicine posed novel moral problems. The question of with whom one talks when one talks of God was not at the beginning of the discipline an important question evidently; one simply spoke one's mind and gave one's reasons, and the indebtedness of a mind or of reasons to a theological tradition was not assumed (not by Ramsey, at any rate) to limit the relevance of one's normative conclusions.

After the "renaissance," however, came the "enlightenment" of medical ethics. It did not come, of course, by any inexorable design of history, nor even by design of the philosophers who entered the field, but it came. If Stephen Toulmin's provocative thesis that applied medical ethics saved moral philosophy from its arid debates about metaethics is true,[4] then one can understand a certain impatience with speculative questions; but for whatever reason, the discipline turned to the consideration of moral quandaries in narrowly circumscribed circumstances and to questions of public regulation. …

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