03 January 2017

Defining Spirituality: A Medical Perspective

The medical field is starting to recognize and embrace spirituality as an intrinsic part of our humanity. Over 10 years ago Newsweek reported that at the time 50% of medical schools had courses on spirituality, and that by now they expected the number to be greater than 70% (quoted by McGinn, 5).  This movement had its origins in palliative care where patients are confronted with questions of ultimate meaning and value and has matured to a place where several internal conferences were convened to reach "consensus on approaches to the integration of spirituality into health care structures at all levels" (Puchalski, 642). From these conferences emerged a consensus definition of spirituality.

This definition developed over several years through multiple conferences. In 2009 in the United States a conference the following consensus definition was reached.
Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred. (Puchalski, 643)
This definition with its focus on 'the significant or sacred' is meant to be able to include people with explicit faith commitments and theology as well as those with non-traditional or informal spiritualities, as well as atheists. This definition was "well received in the United States." (Puchalski, 643)

In 2010 a similar conference was held in Europe with similar goals and the following definition was agreed upon.
Spirituality is the dynamic dimension of human life that relates to the way persons (individual and community) experience, express and/or seek meaning, purpose and transcendence, and the way they connect to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, to the significant, and/or the sacred.
(Puchalski, 645)
With clear similarities to the earlier work, this definition also emphases the dynamic nature of spirituality, and explicitly includes both individual and community experiences. It also moves beyond 'connectedness' and includes elements of 'transcendence'.

In 2013 an international conference was held and after a 'robust and dynamic discuss with several rounds of voting' reached the following consensus definition.
Spirituality is a dynamic and intrinsic aspect of humanity through which persons seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and experience relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred. Spirituality is expressed through beliefs, values, traditions, and practices.
The international group 'felt strongly' that the definition must be inclusive of spiritualities of different cultures and and societies. Also some wanted the definition to be less abstract since spirituality 'is not a product but an experience that emerges from engagement in life; it is a quality that is not simply produced but emerges over time.' (Puchalski, 646). The international definition extends again the previous work and states explicitly that spirituality is an 'intrinsic aspect' of our humanity. It changes the 'connect to' language to 'experience relationship to'. Family is also explicitly included since in may societies it plays a vital role in a person's spirituality. The final sentence was added illustrating how spirituality is expressed.

Works Cited

McGinn, Bernard. “Spirituality Confronts Its Future.” Spiritus 5, no. 1 (2005): 88–96.

Puchalski, Christina M., Robert Vitillo, Sharon K. Hull, and Nancy Reller. “Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care: Reaching National and International Consensus.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 17, no. 6 (May 19, 2014): 642–56.

15 December 2016

Theology and Spirituality

On the relationship between Theology and Spirituality Sandra Schneiders writes the following:      
... historically, one of the most interesting characteristics of Christian spirituality as lived experience is its capacity to be outside of, or even ahead of, theological developments, and to introduce into the theological and or religious purview of the Church insights and convictions which stretch the received theological categories and paradigms (54).   
She goes on to cite examples from John of the Cross, Julian of Norwitch and Teresa of Avala. She isn't claiming here that spirituality should have priority over theology but rather that they are mutually informing; one does not dominate the other. She cautions that "the premature application of theological criteria of acceptability to phenomena in the field of spirituality can be a serious mistake (54)". She is not suggesting complete independence but rather informing dialog and certain amount freedom.

One of the major themes in the first half of the book of Acts is Spirit of God leading of the nascent church and along the way informing and sometimes radically changing their theology. The conversion of Cornelius is a good example here. The church at this point was Jewish. Cornelius' conversion was orchestrated by God with attendant angelic visits and visions. In the end the Spirit falls on Cornelius, and Peter allows him to be baptized "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have" (Acts 10:47). Peter will later have to explain his actions to the Jerusalem church. When he does he links the activity of the Spirit with the work of the Lord (Acts 11:16).

I'm not advocating building theology from spirituality or forcing our spirituality into the theological categories but allowing each to being mutually informing, working together, supporting and at times times challenging each other.

Works cited

Schneiders, Sandra Marie. “A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality.” In Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality, edited by Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark S Burrows, 49–60. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

06 February 2014

On the Ham/Nye debate

I've been following the Creation/Science debate between Ham and Nye and its aftermath. I am troubled by many things among them are:
  1. Ham only seems to acknowledges one single Christian position on science. So either you accept his position 100% or are lumped together with the 'secularists'. 
  2. Ham's answers in Genesis at its foundation seems to be much more about, and motivated by, a particular way of interpreting the Bible than science. This should be made clear up front. 
  3. Since Ham is really doing Biblical interpretation, it is very strange that he does not seem to be in conversation with others scholars who read Hebrew and understand the culture in the Ancient Near East. 
  4. Ham's argumentation style is ungracious; he often unfairly characterizes and often demonizes his opponents. 
  5. Ham often emphases the idea that if you don't agree him and with his way of interpreting the Bible then you will end up becoming completely secularized supporting things like euthanasia. This is frankly deeply offensive and without basis, and only shows that he doesn't understand other positions.
Of all my concerns, and there are more, my biggest is that we let this issue divide the christian community. If you believe Ham, there is only one valid Christian view: his!. Is it not possible that others who treasure scripture and hold it as inspired and authoritative come to a different view than his? Wouldn't it be better if Christians could unite what we agree on - that God ultimately created everything - instead of being divided over how creation might have happened.

11 July 2010

Discomfort and relational hospatility

Hospitality is a central value in our family. We enjoying hosting friends and guests in our home and teach our children to help make our guests feel welcome.  It has occurred to me that hospitality is really a broad relational category not simply connected with serving people who visit us in our homes. It should be practiced in our interpersonal relationships just as much as with our guests.

There are a couple people that I feel very uncomfortable around. I don't know what to say to them or how to interact with them. My solution is to avoid them when in public. This avoidance is actually inhospitableness on my part. I'm realizing that they likely feel this even if it is not completely conscious. It has nothing really to do with them it is just my discomfort but it nevertheless affects them negatively.

Being committed to hospitality must mean learning to live with some discomfort. Pushing past my discomfort to be welcoming and accommodating.

02 March 2010

Book Review - Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970).

Freire's work is truly a revolutionary pedagogy both in the sense that it is a landmark book cited by most of the pedagagocial literature that I am currently reading as well as in the sense that it is about empowering, and educating the oppressed in their struggle for liberation and freedom - or as Freire puts it - in their struggle to become authentically human. It is in the context of oppression that his work is addressed. The challenge, for Freire, is that the oppressed have "internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his [sic] guidelines" (31); the oppressed become "hosts" of the oppressor. Since, for the oppressed, the oppressor is the only model of humanity available, freedom from oppression means becoming like the oppressor.
The central problem is this: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be "hosts" of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery for their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization (33 italics original).
Both oppressed an oppressor are in bondage. It is the burden of this book then is to discover how both may be liberated from their cycle of fear and become truly human. In the three subsequent chapters he proposes a liberating educational method, discusses reflective action, and finally concludes by discussing revolutionary leadership.

In his second chapter, Freire contrasts two educational methods. The traditional model calls "banking" eduction, and his liberating model which he labels "problem-posing". In the traditional banking model, the students are objects and receive education from the teachers. In this model eduction "becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories, and the teacher is the depositor" (58). By treating the pupils as passive recipients of knowledge, this method affirms the subjugation of the oppressed, and in the extreme it contributes to their domination by their oppressors. Fundamental for Freire is that liberation can only authentically happen through the active involvement of the oppressed. This active involvement will eventually lead to action, but must start with the educational method. So in problem-posing eduction. "students are no longer 'docile listeners' but are 'now critical co-investigators' in dialog with the teacher" (71). The teachers pose questions which help the students think critically about the causes of their their concrete historical situation. For Freire, as for Banks in Reenvisioning Theological Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), eduction should be directly related to the concrete situation - liberation for Freire, ministry for Banks. Freire concludes: "In sum: banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men as historical beings; problem-posing theory and practice take man's historicity as their staring point" (71).

Freire's third chapter is devoted to reflective action. This concept which he calls "praxis" avoids two extremes. "Verbalism", on one side, is theoretical reflection which does not lead to concrete action. "Activism", the opposite extreme, is concrete action without any critical reflection. In contrast "praxis" is action based on critical, dialogical reflection. Freire sees reflection - and thus education - and action as inseparable. Action must be based on reflection and "the starting point for organizing the program content of education or political action must be the present, existential concrete situation, reflecting the aspirations of the people" (85).

In his final chapter Freire turns his attention to revolutionary leadership. His core concern is that revolutionary leaders do not just become yet another oppressor, but instead genuinely foster liberation. Revolutionary leaders must engage in praxis (action together with critical reflection) with and not just for the people. Leadership must act together with the people never simply on behalf of those to be liberated. Real liberation, for Freire, is community action.
We can legitimately say that in the process of oppression someone oppresses someone else; we cannot say that in the process of revolution someone liberates someone else, nor yet that someone liberates himself, but rather that men in communion liberate each other. (128)
Acting with the oppressed, means that leaders must act dialogically - in constant interactive communication. Dialogical leadership "does not impose, does not manipulate, does not domesticate, does not 'sloganize'"(168).
Revolutionary leaders who do not act dialogically in their relations with the people either have retained characteristics of the denominator and are not truly revolutionary; or they are totally misguided in their conception of their role, and, prisoners of their own sectarianism, are equally non-revolutionary. (119)
Antidialogical leadership or action, as far as Freire is concerned, is simply conquest where the conqueror objectifies the conquered subject. In contrast dialogical leadership never manipulates or objectifies. It is a communal action where "Subjects meet in cooperation in order to transform the world" (167).

I found this book very stimulating though it would be difficult to directly apply to my role teaching introductory Bible in a small liberal arts college. This is partly due to the extreme difference in teaching context. Friere is directly addressing the liberation of the the oppressed. It is not clear what he would say about education in general. He would certainly advocate a much higher correlation between the course content and the student's life situations. This may invlove much more discussion and interaction with the class to learn how to shape the presentation of the material in a way that is more directly connected with their life.

In Freire's chapter on problem posing verses banking education is probably the most interesting and proactive in my current context even when allowances are made for the difference with his context. Teaching for him would mean starting with a series of critical question and working together with the class to answer them.

01 March 2010

Book Review - The Courage to Teach

Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life Tenth Anniversary Edition (USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

Although subtitled "Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life," which might imply an introspective focus on a teacher's psychology, Parker's The Courage to Teach, is rather a radical vision for education written with the clear intention to catalyze a reform movement. Indeed the aim of the final chapter of the original edition is to provide encouragement in the face of opposition to those working for systematic institutional change. The tenth anniversary edition also includes a epilogue describing several case studies where Palmer's ideas have been successfully implemented at an institutional level. The subtitle does however provide a good description of Parker's approach to education reform. Reform, for Parker, begins with the lives of teachers: the inner lives of individual teachers, as well as the lives of the communities of learners and teachers. He addresses the former in the first three chapters, and the later in the subsequent three, leaving the final chapter as an encouragement to larger reform.

Beginning education reform with educators, Palmer's premise is that "good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher" (10, italics original). Good teaching begins, for Parker, not with learning correct or helpful techniques but a teacher knowing and trusting their selfhood and being willing to make it vulnerable in the service of learning (11). Trusting our selfhood requires both that teachers learn who they are as a person - their identity - and it requires approaching wholeness with this identity - or to living in integrity. Techniques are helpful, but only when they "reveal rather than conceal" the personhood of the teacher (25). So everything begins with understanding one's identity and then living in integrity with it. So for Palmer, a teacher does not choose a subject, rather the subject chooses the teacher. For example, I have discovered that I care deeply about reading the Bible well. My effectiveness as a teacher is tightly connected with living in integrity with this understanding of my identity. (It also explains why I feel violated with I hear others doing violence to the text). Good teaching means being connected with the self which then enables me to be connected with others.

Fear is the major obstacle to the connected lives that Parker is advocating. A basic fear that Palmer address is the fear of a "live encounter." "We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear" (38). He breaks this fear down into a sequence of four fears: diversity, conflict when divergent truths meet, losing ones identity, and finally the fear "that a live encounter will challenge or even compel us to change our lives" (39). This fear is latent in both students and teachers (as well as administrators). A teacher must face this fear in themselves, otherwise they will be blinded to it in others and especially their students. Fear also effects our ways of knowing, Palmer summarizes his relational epistemology which articulates more fully in his To Know As We Are Known, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). Palmer's solution to this pervasive fear is "reclaiming the connectedness that takes away fear" (60). Unfortunately he does not elaborate much on how one accomplishes this.

Parker's final chapter on a teacher's inner life is an exhortation to embrace paradox in teaching and learning. Eschewing the polarized either-or thinking which "fragments reality," Palmer advocates a both-and approach which looks for connectedness. "In certain circumstances, truth is a paradoxical joining of apparent opposites, and if we want to know that truth, we must learn to embrace those opposites as one" (65). To illustrate Palmer applies His paradox embracing both-and approach to limits and potentials of self, and pedagogical design. For example in the later he suggests a series of both-ands which should characterize the classroom. It should be both; bounded and open; hospitable and charged; invite individuals and the group voices; honor little and big stores; support solitude and community; and welcome silence and speech (76-80). While advocating that the teacher hold opposites in tension, Palmer admits that he cannot explain how it is done only that it "is about being, not doing;" they are held together "in the teacher's heart" (88).

In the second half, Palmer moves from the inner life of the teacher to the life of the learning community. The later, however, is firmly based on the health of the former; "only as we in communion with ourselves can we find community with others"(92). His agenda for educational reform, therefore, starts healthy teachers who then are in a position to form a healthy community. It is this communal vision for learning that is really driving Parker, as seen in his definition of teaching. To teach, for Palmer, "is to create a space where the community of truth is practiced" (92). Community for Parker, is not limited to teachers and learners but, importantly, encompasses the the subject as well. Again drawing on his relational epistemology (Palmer, 1998), Palmer even construes knowing in relational-communal terms "we know reality only by being in community with it ourselves." The stress here is on the personal nature of truth. Teaching then, is creating a space where both the teacher and the learners interact with the subject; were everyone is engaged in developing their relationship with the subject. This process does not degrade into phenomenological subjectivity because it gives significant focus on and dignity to the subject which is treated "with the respect we normally give to human beings" (105). It is the respect for the subject that provides the bounds of our inquiry. Parker is really advocating a subject centered pedagogy - one that is communally construed.

Parker now turns his attention to "Subject-Centered Education" where neither student nor teacher is the center of the dialog, but where both interact dialogically and in an egalitarian manner with the subject. It is the job of the teacher to help give the subject its "independent voice" (120). It is the teacher's passion for the subject that in part gives voice to the subject because passion is a way of showing how the subject has personally impacted the live of the teacher. Though Parker is not focused on particular teaching techniques, it is very clear for him that subject centered teaching means a shift away from traditional lecture centered teaching. "In a subject centered classroom, the teacher's central task is to give the great thing and independent voice - a capacity to speak its truth quite apart from the teacher's voice in terms that students can hear and understand" (120). Giving the subject its independent voice means for Parker, that students are interacting directly with the subject and with each other as well as hearing lectures about the subject from the professor. For example, Parker would certainly affirm many of the techniques and values expressed by Brookfield and Preskill, Discussion as a way of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 1999).

This raises naturally a questions from one teaching an overview course where there is a substantial amount of material. Parker's response is that "if the aim of the course is to deliver a great deal of information, the worst way to do it is by nonstop lecturing" (124). Parker proposes a solution he calls "Teaching from the microcosm." It is based on the idea, which he never substantiates, that "each discipline has an inner logic so profound that every critical piece of it contains the information necessary to reconstruct the whole" (125). Parker would advocate teaching a few things in greater detail with much more student interaction than trying to cover a subject more broadly with less details. He would say that a grasp of the a few details will actually give a better picture of the broader topic. The idea seems very interesting, sadly he offers very little to sustained it.

The final chapter on the communal side of teaching concerns the teaching community. Parker suggests that teaching is the most "privatized of all the public professions." All other professions, in comparison, are practiced in the presence of ones peers, in contrast a teacher in a classroom is almost a private domain with respect to one's professional peers. The burden of this chapter is to encourage conversation between teachers. Parker provides a few tools and suggests to help faculty have meaningful conversation about teaching.

This book really is an outstanding achievement that deserves much of the praise given it. Parker paints a compelling new picture for education. But this picture is more like impressionism than a portrait; many details are lacking and much is unsubstantiated. The picture compels because of its beauty and possibly because alternative pictures are perceived as ugly. To be fair, impressionism is probably exactly right style for painting a picture calculated to engender a reform movement. A more detailed book would be too long to be consumed by enough people.

01 November 2009

Greek resources on the web

Lately I've been brushing up on my Greek. I've found a great resource on the web:

Greek & Hebrew Reader's Bible