Towards a Theology of Health, Dying and Human Flourishing

cook-chrisPresented by Revd Professor Christopher Cook, Professor of Spirituality, Theology and Health, University of Durham

Introductory Talk

Why is theology important in all of this? What is theology?

  • Anselm: “Theology is faith seeking understanding”
  • Quest for understanding informed by the three (Anglican) roots of scripture, tradition and reason
  • Theology is inherently interdisciplinary (not multidisciplinary)
  • Rowan Williams said that there are three styles of theology, all of which are of relevance here:
  1. Celebratory (what we can affirm as good now)
  2. Communicative (conversation with other disciplines., other faith communities, concerns of world around us)
  3. Critical (going out of our comfort zones, openness, willingness to be changed by the ‘truth’ of others)

Discussion in 2’s and 3’s

With reference to the keynote speech for Theme 1, given by Dr Gareth Tuckwell:

What did you like about what Gareth said?

Where do you feel he didn’t go far enough?

Feedback and full group discussion

Health: Problems of theodicy

  1. good that people can ‘see Christ’ in us, however they might define Christ or God, but it can raise difficulties; after all Christ healed diseases and raised people from the dead
  2. perhaps health care is a very positive way in which we can ‘enact’ God’s healing
  3. liked Gareth’s comment that ‘healthy groups can accept suffering’ but again there are tensions between accepting suffering (yes, but God heals) and a belief in divine intervention (yes, but God doesn’t always heal)
  4. should we peacefully accept what is going on? Or should we challenge, pray, be pro-active towards “wholeness”. What about realized eschatology?

Human flourishing

  1. might theology challenge the view that ‘flourishing” = absence of disease?
  2. Moltmann (quoted by Gareth): “ Health is having the strength to live, to suffer and to die”.  Thus acceptance of suffering is not passivity, but living fully
  3. Important to make distinction between physical health and wholeness
  4. Challenge of disability: what does ‘wholeness’ mean here?
  5. To live fully as Christians is to ‘act upon’ the world. But how important is ‘vulnerability? (acknowledging our helplessness and need of God).
  6. In illness and ageing, our limitations close in on us (sometimes we are ‘handed over’ like Jesus before Pilate). If we are still to flourish, we need to use those limitations as a way to release us to do other things (e.g. we might be bed-bound but we can pray more)


  1. End of life cancer care: we ask not ‘how much ‘dis-ease’ do you have, but how much ‘ease’?
  2. Positive affirmation of life and flourishing as approach dying may not get any better physically, but can still grow spiritually and in relationship
  3. ‘End of life’ is a negative term; ‘completion of life’ may be better. Jesus on the cross: “It is finished” was also a cry of “it is completed”
  4. In Papua New Guinea, the dead person is buried at the door of the eldest son. People continue to visit and talk and life and death are interweaved. Do we tend to push death away and hide it under the carpet?

Final Question:

Where does the Church need to go in its exploration of these things?

  1. Beware of the cultural imperative of ‘doing’ – we are human beings not human doings. By affirming being instead of doing we affirm those with disabilities as well as the able-bodied. (N.B. Why not take the chalice to the person in the wheelchair first instead of giving them the dregs!)
  2. Value ‘connectedness’ and relationship as a counter to the individualist nature of society.
  3. Each local church must get to know its community.

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