Friday, July 30, 2010

No Dead Ends

The comments on yesterday's post (To the New Class) have me contemplating the similarities between medical and theological thinking this morning. That there are similarities might be surprising since we ordinarily regard medicine as a scientific enterprise, theology a religious one, and never the twain shall meet. There is a way, however, of talking about the kind of thinking we do in each that may provide a healthy corrective and help us understand how these disciplines address the human condition in a manner that is complimentary, rather than mutually exclusive.

Let's begin by defining our terms. When I use the word theology I'm referring to a critical reflection on the nature of religious experience. Not religious as a category of human experience, but very specifically, one that falls within the framework of an identifiable religious tradition. This is in distinction from religious studies, which is the scientific, historical, psychological, or sociological examination of a religious tradition or religion in general.

Theological thinking attempts to describe one's experience of ultimate mystery in a way that is communicable, and as such, is limited by language. How do you put into words that which by its very nature, transcends comprehension? Someone has said theologians should be poets. Religious studies, on the other hand, isn't interested so much in the implications or practical application of religious experience in the context of a faith persuasion. Instead, it wants to know to what extent the experience can be scientifically examined, placed in an historical setting, or evaluated psychologically. Theology presumes one is speaking as a believer; the practitioner of religious studies can be, and not uncommonly is, an atheist.

For our purposes, in place of theology and religious studies, I'm going to substitute clinical thinking and medical science. This is my own choice of terms, by the way, so be aware other writers may choose differently. Medical science refers to the process whereby we analyze, describe, and diagnose, while relying the scientific method, examination, the accumulation and evaluation of evidence, and technology where applicable. Clinical thinking is the process of reflecting on what we do as physicians; its tools are experience, education, training, and hopefully, maturity. Medical science, in a sense, tells us how well we do it and how to do it better.

If theology is a reasonable analogue of clinical thinking, it follows that one must be a clinician of some sort to engage in it. Not necessarily a doctor, but someone whose livelihood is earned in the trenches. A critical reflection on being a clinician and the experience of caring for persons implies possession of first-hand knowledge. It's why many physicians are poets. Medical science knows no such condition; observation is accessible to anyone willing to pay attention.

Now, all of this gets sticky when we consider how practitioners evaluate their own disciplines. It's tempting for a psychiatrist to say, for example, that only psychiatrists are in a position to critically appraise the field of psychiatry and the same holds true for other specialties. But that begs the question, just as it does for Christian theologians, because our situation within a given theological or medical context colors our perceptions. Consequently, of great value to both is the opinion of one who stands outside the perimeter of "faith."

All of this is not to say the theologian's or clinician's self-criticism is invalid, only that it is inherently limited and one should resist marrying one's perceptions. Whether in medicine or theology, we're working with humanity in ways that far exceed the capacity of any single person. We need one another if for no other reason than to keep each other honest. In the pursuit of understanding, the only dead ends are the roads we refuse to take.

(Creative Commons image by rustytanton via Flickr)

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