The Tradition of a Medical-Theological Dialogue in Schleswig

By Gunkel, Joachim | International Review of Mission, January-April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Tradition of a Medical-Theological Dialogue in Schleswig


Gunkel, Joachim, International Review of Mission


To begin personally, I would like to share something of my family's involvement in dialogue between medicine and theology. In the Gunkel family there is a special tradition in this regard. In the family of my grandfather, Theo, who was a doctor with a high reputation in Fulda, issues like this were part of daily conversations. It was almost inevitable that the oldest son was to become a theologian, whereas the younger son, my father, became a paediatrician, with me following this path as well. Theo Gunkel, after some years of study in Rome some 75 years ago, became one of the founders of the so-called Oratorianer in Leipzig, who were famous for renewing liturgical life within the Roman Catholic Church and continued their work in Munich later (my family is not related to the well known Protestant, Prof. Gunkel, the famous biblical scholar).

After moving to Schleswig in 1975, I was glad to hear that in this beautiful and culturally rich bishop's city on the river Schlei there also had existed for some time a regular tradition of a medical-theological colloquium, which brought together leading medical experts and theologians/pastors of the Protestant church.

This tradition goes back to the former bishop of Schleswig, Bishop Petersen, who, together with the medical director of the regional hospital of Schleswig, Prof. Dr Doner, founded this common platform of dialogue between theologians and doctors in 1971. Interestingly enough, the first topic dealt with centred on the theme "Searching for (different) ways of healing", and brought together different perspectives on healing processes for psychiatric illnesses. For a subsequent series of fourteen dialogues in this common medical-theological gathering, the same approach was applied in order to focus mainly on particular psychiatric issues both from a theological and a medical point of view.

Among other things, both doctors and chaplains/pastoral counselling experts worked and dealt with themes such as:

* methods and approaches of therapeutic sciences;

* depression;

* the interrelation of soul, body and mind;

* social psychiatry--its promises and realities;

* psychiatric drugs--therapeutic potentials and ethical dilemmas;

* the Humanum as the basic criterion for the treatment of psychiatric patients;

* the problems and challenges of suicide;

* psychiatric diseases in the period of ageing.

Usually, our dialogues began with contributions and case studies from both doctors and pastors who were locally involved in Schleswig institutions, but we also invited experts from other regions in Germany, and on some occasions also from other European countries.

After some years of inactivity, in 1996 we began anew at the initiative of a paediatrician (Dr Gunkel) under the key topic, "When children pass away: what it means to encounter death". The circle carrying out the activities of the dialogue forum was enlarged and transformed into a trilateral group bringing together the psychiatric hospital of Schleswig, the Martin Luther Hospital of Sehleswig and the Bishop of Schleswig.

Other themes followed, such as:

* medical issues of transplantation--medical, juridical and ethical aspects;

* "euthanasia" during the Nazi period (killing of psychiatric patients and handicapped people during the Third Reich-period in Germany);

* genetic engineering--possibilities and potential risks;

* dying as part of life;

* emergency medical and counselling interventions;

* health between science and miracle, or the interrelation between faith, prayer, ritual and healing. …

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