None of My Business?: Why it is Both Dangerous and Impossible for Physicians to Avoid Theology
Wilson Ricketts, B.A., Medical Student, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine
In a recent article, “Responding to Religious Patients: Why Physicians have no Business doing Theology,” Jake Greenblum and Ryan Hubbard argue that it is always inappropriate for physicians to engage in theological dialogue with their patients. In their view, such theological engagement contravenes the fiduciary nature of the doctor-patient relationship and violates the demands of “public reason.” To bolster their case, the authors cite a number of examples from the literature that depict clinicians engaging their patients with poorly executed and heavy handed theological disputation. Although Greenblum and Hubbard are correct to be troubled by the concerning examples they cite, they simultaneously exaggerate the scope of the problem and offer a solution that is entirely ill conceived. The authors desire to show that these examples of amateur theologizing and the obvious pitfalls to which they can lead prove that physicians ought to avoid any substantive theological discussion with their patients, full stop. However, I will argue that these real pitfalls are the very reason why it is in fact crucial that physicians receive training in theology in order to adeptly navigate this potentially fraught area of the doctor-patient relationship. Furthermore, I will draw on the writing of author Wendell Berry and others to argue that Greenblum and Hubbard’s arguments regarding public reason rest upon an idealized conception of the liberal order. In the end, this vision fails to account for the real work of moral deliberation required in our contemporary pluralistic setting. Finally, I will turn to the Hippocratic Oath and the work of bioethicist Paul Ramsey to argue that Greenblum and Hubbard misunderstand the fiduciary nature of medical practice, leading them to give a reductionistic account of medicine. Ultimately, their proposal elevates one aspect of medical practice above other equally important characteristics in a way that is ultimately far more damaging to the doctor-patient relationship than the theological misadventures that they are so keen to guard against. In conclusion, I will briefly sketch an alternative vision of how to properly understand the relation between medicine and theology, drawing on the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Jeffrey Bishop, Gerald McKenny, and Martin Luther.