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Related Topics
Medicine As MinistryReview - Medicine As Ministry
Reflections on Suffering, Ethics, and Hope
by Margaret E. Mohrmann
Pilgrim Press, 1995
Review by Debbie Hill
Feb 7th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 6)

Dr. Mohrmann, who also has a Ph.D. in theological ethics, avers that "a true and complete understanding of health includes mental and spiritual health as important ingredients in their own right, not just as promoters of physical health." She further posits that biomedical ethics is insufficient for such caregiving because it is too focused on the "right" answer, generalizes too much and does not take into account the uniqueness of each person’s story, which must be told in detail in order to fully appreciate the situation. The reasons for the misplaced focus of biomedical ethics can be seen, for example, in the "idolatry" of worshipping our current images of health as being young and beautiful and immortal over that which God has given to each of us: people of all ages and conditions who will surely die. These images deny the raison d’etre of Christianity: life after death that is better than life on earth; i.e., a fear of death is a blasphemy against God.

In an Introduction and six short chapters, the author traces her sense of realistic theological ethics, the study of how our beliefs about God should affect our personal character and our conduct in society, from the Bible to specific medical ethical dilemmas. However, she also counsels against taking the many Biblical stories as prima facie rules; the historical examples must be tempered with the contemporary situation. The most important question in these situations is "Who is this?" The person’s society, beliefs, childhood background, and the diagnosis and prognosis are some of the factors that must be considered.

In keeping with the theme of a kind of situation ethics, I think her strongest chapter is the one in which she argues that God’s nature is relational; that the essence of the Trinity is love and this should be the basis for any decisions that are made during medical crises. Sometimes the best that can be done is to be a willing and patient companion on the road toward death; a companion who shares in the love and pain inherent in such a situation so that the line between healer and sufferer is blurred. Human life does not have infinite value in Christian ethics.

The way in which we know God is through the stories told in the Bible. We can’t know God through any one of them or any one book; it takes the totality. Just so, it takes an understanding of the unique totality of each "sufferer" before decisions can be adequately made. The best attitude in learning about God is to expect to be changed by it; we should do the same for those for whom we care. In order to do this, one must learn how to listen to someone’s story. Often, we use metaphors to express how we experience something that seems ineffable. The hearer must have patience and discernment in hearing stories. The person must always remain the "hero" of the story, not the caregiver and especially not the diagnosis. The endurance required to be a companion on this road is not indicative of resignation, but of Christian hope.

Mohrmann posits that the important question must be "How are we going to behave toward a situation?" rather than "How are we going to solve this problem?" Caregivers can help to provide an important sense of meaning to a difficult time and place--a true gift. The absence of pain cannot always be the goal; sometimes the companionship of others is the goal. Rituals can be important in this process, thereby giving a voice to suffering.

She does not discuss the issue of theodicy in any depth, asserting that it is not the focus of the book. She does spend one chapter applying her theories to a specific situation, that of the issue of organ donation and what it could mean in a Christian context. Whether or not you agree with her theology and ethics, Mohrmann makes some important points about the need to deal with the person rather than the disease.
 

You can buy this book from Barnes and Noble.com, who sell it at a 20% discount and promise to ship it within 24 hours:  Medicine As Ministry

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