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Introducing the “Cancer & Theology” guest blog series

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It didn’t take long from hearing the doctor utter the word “lymphoma” for me to begin reflecting on my cancer theologically — I doubt it takes any cancer patient long, Christian or otherwise. I hold the belief that all of life is one big theological exercise, that our minute-to-minute actions betray a comprehensive and operative theological framework at work either consciously or unconsciously. That we are inherently theological beings suggests that any life crisis — small, medium, or large — equates to a theological crisis.

Now, there’s a reason that my Twitter bio says “amateur theologian,” and it’s not false modesty. Knowing how to swim does not by definition make someone a great swimmer. Rather, becoming a great swimmer takes years of practice, discipline, motivation, apprenticeships and mentorships, etc. And so it is with theology — we’re all theologians, but the greatest theologians among us are defined by the same aforementioned qualities.

Which is why I’ve asked some of the greatest theologians I know to participate as guest bloggers in a new series here on JakeBouma.com straightforwardly titled Cancer & Theology.

The Objectives

The guest bloggers I have assembled (listed below) will be doing what Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke call deliberative theology or deliberative theological reflection. In their book How To Think Theologically, Stone and Duke define deliberative theology thusly:

“Deliberative theology is the understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions. This sort of reflection is sometimes called second-order theology, in that it follows upon and looks back over the implicit understandings embedded in the life of faith.”1

I’ve specifically requested that the guest bloggers not reflect on my personal experience with cancer, but rather on cancer generally speaking, as a common human (and therefore religious) phenomenon. Should they choose, I’ve provided them with prompts such as “What is the relationship between cancer and God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?” and “How is God present during the ‘process’ of cancer (sickness to diagnosis to treatment to recovery)?” and “Can/does God work through medical technology and advances in medicine in general?” These and other questions will be considered by the guest bloggers below over the course of the next several months. This is the first and primary objective.

The second objective of the Cancer & Theology series is to look at what Stone and Duke call embedded theology or first-order theology and examine how embedded theologies relate to individuals’ responses to cancer and the people who have it. Think of embedded theology is the theology that we carry with us in our subconscious, or the theology that has not yet been critically examined.

Because it has not been critically examined, embedded theology can reveal itself as immature and even offensive at times. Embedded theology is what leads people to say such things as “When God closes a door, he opens up a window!” and “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle!” In the face of darkness, there is a felt need to fill the cavernous void with the light of theological truth, and so folks pitch out what they know — often and unfortunately the weak, flickering light of embedded theological clichés and platitudes.

Because what do you say when someone tells you he or she has cancer?

The great Stanley Hauerwas says of suffering that it “makes peoples’ otherness stand out in strong relief.”2 Part of what makes it so easy for folks to offer up theological platitudes is that it (paradoxically) both increases and decreases our relational distance to the other, in this case the cancer patient. It decreases distance by making a sincere attempt to impart a word of grace to the patient. It increases distance by using the platitude as a means of hastily moving beyond the patient’s real experience.

So: I have asked the guest bloggers to provide original one- or two-line alternatives to embedded theological platitudes that walk the thin line between the two — increasing and decreasing the distance between the patient — and that are evident of rich, deliberative theological reflection.

This series exists as much for me as it does for you; I hope we’re all stretched in new and imaginative ways in how to think theologically about cancer (and, by extension, other illnesses) and those who have it. I’m beyond excited to discover what the guest bloggers below have to contribute.

The Guest Bloggers

I’ve done my best to pull together an assortment of adroit voices to contribute to this series. At the time of this posting, the folks who will be lending their theological wisdom include, in no particular order:

The Schedule

Starting one week from today there will be a new post in the series, and the series will continue each subsequent Monday until the list of guest bloggers is exhausted — well into June.

Cancer and Theology kicks off next Monday, March 19 with a post from Tony Jones.

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  1. Stone, Howard and James Duke. How To Think Theologically. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006. 16. 

  2. Hauerwas, Stanley. Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. 25. Sadly, Stanley declined to participate as a guest blogger in this series. On the flip side, it was really cool to actually hear back from him. 

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