“Will there be anything left . . . that can properly be called religion?”
-- John White Chadwick, The Faith of Reason (1879)
“He believes in science,” she said.
I had stopped by his room. A new admission. His chart said “Religion Unknown.” He was, as we say to family members on the phone afterward, “resting comfortably.” There’s nothing else to say. He’s still breathing. He doesn’t, so far as we can tell, know we’re here. But because the oral culture of our craft says that hearing may be the last of mental powers to go – and because there’s nothing else to do – we speak. I greeted him, I said who I was. I said that I was here to help.
The most likely possibility, if the patient has any religious culture at all, is that he is a Christian or a Jew. So I spoke a psalm of comfort, about fear and the overcoming of fear. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Perhaps, if my words roused his mind from its depthless dream, they would be of – comfort. That was it. I had learned nothing. But I must fill out a “Spiritual Assessment.” So I was not done.
The next step is to “reach out” to the “Primary Care Giver.” His wife picked up the phone. I said who I was, that I had visited her husband and found him resting comfortably, that I had spoken a psalm with him. We are here to support the patient and the family; if she could take a moment to speak with me, she could help me better to understand –
“He doesn’t practice any religion.”
This information, my first in the case, meant that I had somewhat exceeded my mandate. Of course, I had been somewhat misinformed. The chart might have said, “No religion.” But I would still have been required to seek her out, to hear her say the words.
“There won’t be any last rites. No prayers. Nothing like that. How is it possible that people can just come into his room like that without permission?”
I explained that I was legally required to approach the patient, for assessment of religious or spiritual needs. Patient and family can refuse pastoral care if they wish.
“He was a great scientist. He didn’t believe in anything like that. He believed that the world is an orderly place, and that reason is the key to it. There’s not to be any ceremonies. No last rites.”
Transference. The importation of remembered or imagined experience to the present situation. In her mind she saw black-robed figures of Inquisition, smoke and mirrors, mumbo-jumbo and exploitative conversion in extremis.
Counter-Transference. In my mind I saw white-gowned figures of Scientism, bald heads and black-rimmed coke-bottle spectacles. The Scriptures of Atheism, revealing every few years under a new prophet’s name the freshly scrubbed icon of The Wheel. As if scientists had invented Doubt.
She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with. No point explaining that my church has been for eighteen centuries accused of Atheism. That if you ask me whether I believe there is a God, I don’t know what the question means or what difference my answer could make.
We all respect science too much. The only thing science can tell us is how things generally work. It’s a powerful knowledge, but strictly limited. We love science to idolatry. We expect it to tell us what is sacred. But if there are miracles, science can’t speak of them. Any scientist who speaks of the sacred – even to say there is no sacred – has stopped for that moment being a scientist.
I don’t think God is so cruel that my prayer could save the patient’s life. And our doctors know they cannot predict the time of death. It’s not like in the movies. “One year to live,” says the doctor, and the patient, sound of mind and strong of body, goes round the world making up for his faulty life, expiring plump at last amidst violins and good lighting, and speaking wise words.
When she said he believed “that reason is the key,” she was praying for him.
“So I’ll indicate that you’re refusing pastoral care.”
“No last rites. He believes in science,” said she.
“So do I,” said I.
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