Is it tacky to write a post about the same book twice?
My editor says, “no,” so I guess it is ok.
I finally finished Jeffrey Bishop’s work The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying, and I have to say it was very good. I’m not going to write a review because that has already been done and I don’t really want to go through and summarize his arguments chapter by chapter. I’m not paid enough to do that… at least not yet.
I will say that his use of Foucault and his analysis of the medical ethos and philosophical approach to healing is fantastic. Like I said, it is a good book.
What I want to reflect on are his concluding thoughts. Bishop reflects on what it means to be a person, what it means to live (rather than what it means to die). He then considers the “call” of medicine, i.e. what is it that drives one to enter into the vocation of medicine. For Bishop, a great deal of that call is based on relationship between the medical professional and the person who is suffering and sharing to one degree or another that suffering. This is a corrective that Bishop feels is important for all doctors to have when caring for the dying.
So far so good.
He questions in his concluding paragraphs what medicine might look like if it considered the purpose of life over the function of life and admits such a question moves into the philosophical areas of thought. “In other words, these questions open into an arena of uncertainty, where meaning cannot be limited to what is true and transferable to all other bodies” (313).
In response to such a push a medical professional may say something like:
“Damnit Jim, I’m a doctor not a philosopher!”
Bishop also states, “It just might be that the practices of religious communities marginalized in modernity and laughed at as unscientific are the source of human medicine…. Might it not be that only theology can save medicine?”
Now imagine me, reading this at 5am, in my pajamas, drinking my tea, J.S. Bach playing in the background – serene, isn’t it – and I yell out loud,
“Damnit Jim, I’m a theologian not a doctor!”
(Actually I am a doctor, but not that kind of doctor, so again I say Damnit!)
Is Bishop asking me (not me personally) to enter into the fray of what it means to live and to actually offer some thoughts? And is Bishop suggesting that other doctors (MDs not PhDs) actually listen to what I have to say? Yes he is.
Granted, this is a leap that Bishop is making that not all in the medical profession can make. It hinges on a sense of faith of one kind or another. I don’t think one has to profess a faith in a god of one kind or another, but has to have an awareness of a “greater-than.” Thus a humanist theologian <
> could offer something to this conversation.
The premise that Bishop seems to be pushing is that life means something. Life has purpose and that purpose/meaning is best discerned through a community with a sense of the “other.” Let’s be honest, doctors cannot study this as well as everything else that they have to study and need the input of others, like theologians. My worry is about those who either do not ascribe to the values/narrative of a particular community or do not have any sense of “other” at all. Then what does the theologian have to say?
I am speaking from a specific context, culture, and community. There are certain, basic values and ideals that are held in that community (even though many theologian’s bread and butter is earned by arguing about those values and ideals). If there is someone who is a part of my community who is struggling with questions of life and death and dying, then I am ready to jump in and help.
What about those who are outside?
How do I help someone who comes from a different faith tradition or community? How do I help someone who is not from any faith tradition or community? Do those people need “help?”
One of the challenges of medicine is doing away with the multiple differences so a problem can be treated regardless of the context of the person with the problem. There is a pragmatic necessity to this. To a degree chaplains have done this with assessment forms and the like which Bishop addresses in his work. There needs to be some uniformity, but only within the consistency of the narrative of the community of the individual. Beyond that, the theologian must be open, sensitive, and listening to the individual. The theologian becomes more of a philosopher in such cases.
I could go on, but then this would no longer be a blog entry and would become an article and then I would have to spend a lot of time really working on the details of the piece.
Bishop is right that religion has been, for the most part, pushed to the side in the medical arena. It is the role of the religious community to be clear about what it means to live and to die. It is the role of the theologian of that community to articulate different ways of understanding such questions. Then it is up to the individuals to voice their own embraced beliefs and the doctors to respect such beliefs. There the theologian does have a role.
Finally, I can feel like I have something to offer!