A Retrospective/Prospective Account of Religious/Spiritual Idea in Medicine
Jonathan Imber, PhD, Wellesley College; Alan Astrow, MD, New York Methodist Hospital/Weill Cornell Medicine
Not quite two decades ago, over the course of a year, an inter-faith conference series, “Spirituality, Religious Wisdom, and the Care of the Patient” was sponsored by the departments of medicine and medical ethics, the comprehensive cancer center, and the department of spiritual care at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. Several concepts underlay the series: 1) Many psychological issues that seriously ill patients suffer from contain a “spiritual component.” This spiritual component referred to a longing for a sense of relationship to a source of transcendence in their lives. 2) While some patients draw strength from a specific religious tradition and religion is where people traditionally have turned for spiritual guidance, the majority in urban areas, referred to now as “nones” consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” These “nones” nevertheless draw upon traditional religious concepts even if not referring to these as such. 2) Generic “spirituality” while avoiding parochialism and the potential for sectarian divisions lacks depth as well as the historical perspective that is indispensable if we hope to humanize an increasingly financially and technologically focused system of medical care. 3) In our pluralistic modern world, the best way to draw upon spiritual insights is through interfaith dialogue. 4) Serious thinkers seek to engage with real life dilemmas in order to lend significance and specificity to their intellectual work while those employed “in the trenches” in medical care often seek to enrich their understanding of the troubling conflicts they often face in their encounters with the desperately ill. 5) A case focused conference series where noted academic intellectuals, theologians, bioethicists, and clergy engaged with each other and with clinicians about the core human experiences of sickness and healing might stimulate crucial new insights into how best to care for the ill. A host of participants were asked to offer insight from their respective faith traditions about the following ideas and issues that remain central to the physician’s calling and the patient’s care: Dignity, Faith, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Healing, Hope, Love, Suffering, Anger, Apathy, Control, Denial, Fear, Guilt, Loneliness, Sadness, and Shame. This paper will present a synopsis and summary of a number of these ideas both to revisit them and to suggest how they might be reassessed two decades later.