The Potato Blight and Pastoral Theology

My wife is a certified pastoral counselor, so I sometimes get pulled in on CPE (Clinical Pastoral Training/Education) groups to lead a small training session. This weekend, I led one in Pastoral Theology. I utilize the definition for Pastoral Theology used by Margaret Whipp, in her book “SCM Guidebook: Pastoral Theology,”

PASTORAL THEOLOGY IS THE STUDY OF HOW AND WHY CHRISTIANS CARE.

Several times (too many times?) I made the statement that good pastoral care depends on good pastoral theology. I also made the statement that how we carry out pastoral care points to our pastoral theology. Thus, if we don’t have a reflected on pastoral theology, we will simply have a tacit (and typically bad) pastoral theology.

This seems a bit ridiculous, especially considering how busy people seem to be in Christian ministry who appear to have no time to worry about such unnecessary things as theology or theological reflection.

But I found a nice little example of tacit pastoral theology in a Youtube Video I watched from a strange source. The channel is “Tasting History” and the particular video is “Irish Stew from 1900 & the Irish Potato Famine.”

It is not a religious or theological channel. But it is quite relevant.

Starting around 1845, Potato Blight hit Ireland hard. People were starving and different people responded differently.

Charles Trevelyan. This man was placed in charge of the relief work by the British government for those starving in Ireland. In the youtube video (link above) it quotes Trevelyan as saying,

“The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… The real evil which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people.” (Charles Trevelyan)

Admittedly, Trevelyan’s views reflected the views of many in power in England. Those in power commonly do see those without power as unworthy in some way… presumably because that implies that they with power have somehow earned their position. However, Trevelyan’s perspective does have an underlying theological perspective. Bad things are happening to the Irish because God wants bad things to happen to them. They have earned what they are getting. And to help people under the judgment of God is to work against God. This is a bit akin to what happened in the 1980s and 1990s when many saw the AIDs epidemic as a judgment of God against homosexuals (particularly). The thought of some was that to work on a cure was to undermine God’s good work.

So what was Trevelyan’s pastoral theology? It is hard to say, but by appearance it seems to be that Christians should care for those who appear to be cared for by God. In other words, we should provide care only for people who don’t require care. This may not be true. Perhaps he was simply an ethnic or religious bigot, and simply justified his prejudices with theological language. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. In practice this was his theology within this specific context. Pastoral theology is highly contexstual.

Bible Societies. Tasting History noted that many Bible Societies (essentially parachurch mission organizations) provided food for the Irish who were starving…. BUT ONLY IF THEY CONVERT TO THE SOCIETY’S DENOMINATION. Since the vast majority of the Irish were staunchly (religiously and culturally) Roman Catholic, care was only given if people left the Roman Catholic Church.

So what is the pastoral theology here? Since conversion (at least change of denominational affiliation) was a prerequisite for receiving care, they were in essence saying, “Christians care for people only if they are like us Christians. If they are different, they can starve.” This sort of thing has happened a lot in Christian (and non-Christian) societies. There has been many times where the “Cross or the Sword” form of evangelism has been active going back to at least Charlemagne. Again, other groups have their own versions, such as the “Shahada or the Scimitar.” Essentially, the idea is that converting to our faith (or in some cases converting to our denominational perspective) is such an inherent eternal good, that pretty much any means to make that happen is a good thing.

Sometimes, it can go the opposite way a bit. As noted, my wife is a pastoral counselor. Usually, she counsels Christians. Sometimes, however, she counsels non-Christians. Some pastoral counselors say that one can only counsel Christians— for all others, the only thing one can do is Evangelize. That is quite a statement if one thinks about it. Probably, they don’t mean this. Probably what they mean is that Conversion to Christ is such a totally important and good thing, that any other good thing we might be able to do with and for this person pales in comparison. That seems a bit dubious. After all, if someone is suicidal and a Christian counselor talks that person out of committing suicide, that hardly pales in comparison to salvation. In fact, not being dead is an essential prerequisite to conversion. Regardless, it is likely that the refusal to help (except evangelize) a non-Christian is likely to be interpreted as “You have NOTHING to offer me that I presently see as valuable.”

This view tends to lend itself to the perspective of the “Ulterior Motive.” We don’t provide care because we love all people. We don’t do it because Jesus commanded us, and modeled it for us. Rather we do it, to get because we expected a quid pro quo. Quid pro quo can be initiated by either side. When a typhoon hit our area, a mission care provider came to the Philippines to provide resources for those hurt by the landslides. The local missionary he was working with began to plan out all of the places they would visit to help. However, the mission care provider had no interest in that list. He only wanted to go to places where there were churches tied to their denomination to provide care. If one of their churches wasn’t there, that was someone else’s problem. While I understand the logic of it, I still must say that it is a sub-Biblical perspective.

Society of Friends. The video noted that one group that did things differently was the Society of Friends (Quakers). There may have been others, but this is one that was singled out by the video. They gave based on the need of the people… regardless of anything else. This has a very different underlying pastoral theology— of how and why Christians provide care to others. In my mind, this is the one

Can You Do Good Pastoral Counseling With Bad Pastoral Theology?

I decided to move some articles from an old blog of mine on Pastoral Theology. That is why some of my posts here are more about pastoral counseling and theology rather than “classic” missions. But since I am in missions and am an administrator at a pastoral counseling center, it is not NOT missions. 

I think this is a good question. I believe the answer to this question is YES!! I have certainly seen people who do a good job with pastoral counseling whose pastoral theology seems… inadequate. Pastoral Theology is Cyclic, Reflective, and founded on a good Theological base and on Experience.

So what are a couple of risks to pastoral counseling when one has poor pastoral theology?

  1. One’s pastoral counseling role is limited. This is if the reflection side is limited by poor or limited theology. Consider the case of Naaman the leper in the Bible. In the story, the servant girl of Naaman was able to give some wise guidance to him through his wife that there was a man in Israel who could help him. It seems as if she did not know much more than this. She did not know his name, or location. Possibly she did not know that much about the Mosaic Law or of ethics… but she knew what she she needed to tell in that specific occasion. Later in the story, other servants of Naaman also give some wise counsel. They were not even people of the Jewish faith, presumably, but they drew from good sagely wisdom that was well established in the Near East at that time. If Naaman was willing to do great tasks on the uncertain hope to be healed, why not do something easy if asked (that may take just a wee bit of humility)? These people were able to give good (pastoral) counseling but most likely their range of effectiveness would be limited.
  2. If one was doing something wrong in pastoral counseling, it is likely that one would perpetuate the mistake over and over again. The inability to learn and grow in this case would be due to poor reflection. One does not learn and grow. The story that comes to mind was a church I used to attend where at the prayer meeting, different ill people would be brought up to be prayed over. Many of them were considered to be “terminal cases.” However, in the prayer the request was that they be fully healed (not healed through death, but healed from death). The prayers were actually not so much a request but a demand. “God you said that you would do whatever we ask you to do, so we declare _________ as healed by the power of your name.” Ironically, several of these prayers were followed in a matter of days by that person’s death. I kept waiting for the members of the group to dwell on the fact that their seemed to be a powerful disconnect between their theology of God (the idea that God has obligated Himself to subvert His will to our will whenever we choose) and what God actually did.

So, Yes, good pastoral counseling can be done by those with poor pastoral theology. However, I believe that good pastoral theology increases the range of one’s pastoral counseling skills, and decreases the amount of repeating the same errors.

Four Books I am Reading Now

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I don’t buy a lot of books. The availability of Christian books that I am interested in here in the Philippines is limited. I also have limited resources. So I really feel fortunate when I ordered four books that were delivered a few weeks ago. All four I have found to be very useful. I don’t read cover to cover very often, I am not a reading ‘machine’ as some I know, but it looks like I am on a trajectory to reading all four completely.

  1.  “The Minister as Diagnostician: Personal Problems in Pastoral Perspective” by Paul W. Pruyser (1976). This was my least risky purchase. We have a Pastoral Counseling center here and we train in Clinical Pastoral Education. Pruyser’s book is written from the perspective of a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, but for church ministers. He noted that pastors training in hospital chaplaincy tended to utilize the diagnostic language (and to a limited extent criteria) of psychologists. He suggested that there are diagnostic categories that are more appropriate, and more within the skill set of ministers. The language choices he uses I don’t find particularly intuitive. However, the seven basic categories for diagnosis I believe are quite useful. Some have noted the challenge of applying these categories in practice, but I believe Pruyser’s work is a good starting point. Looking forward to reading the entire, short, book.
  2. One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization” by Jackson Wu (2015). This was my second safest choice. I enjoy Wu’s posts, many of which are related to this book, so I was pretty sure it would something I would find valuable. It has proven to be so far. I suppose I am curious about the title which speaks of “Biblical Contextualization” while the body of the book speaks of two types of contextualization– “Exegetical Contextualization” and “Cultural Contextualization.” Perhaps the author is linking Biblical with Exegetical, or the two contextualizations are seen to constitute “Biblical Contextualization.” Or maybe, the publisher chose the title. This is far less than a complaint… simply a comment. Positively, it looks at contextualization from a more Asian perspective. Living here in the Philippines, that is important to me. Additionally, it seeks to move from theoretical models of contextualization to a practical path to contextualization.
  3. “SCM Studyguide: Theological Reflection” by Judith Thompson and Stephen Pattison (2008). This was more of a leap of faith. In clinical pastoral care, we seek theological reflection in our trainees. Many struggle. Far too often, what is thought of as theological reflection is little more than verse-dropping (“This case reminds me of Psalm 23”). Other times, there is a failure to be truly reflective– simply reiterating what one already believes. This book is well-structured and deals with a number of forms of theological reflection. These methods are thoroughly orthodox in that the book does not advocate a “create your own theology” view. It seeks to connect and relate one’s faith tradition with experience. Already I find it useful, and am incorporating some of the ideas in a chapter on this topic in our upcoming book, “The Dynamics of Pastoral Care”– a sequel to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”
  4. “SCM Studyguide: Pastoral Theology.” by Margaret Whipp (2015). This book is done by the same publishing house as the previous one, and is a part of the same book series. The series is Anglican, and while the examples used in both books tend to draw from this tradition, they are broadly applicable to other Christians. This book I have only gotten into the earliest chapters, but so far I find it very valuable.  The previous book, Theological Reflection, is more structured, and I like structure. However Pastoral Theology as a subject is far less structured than many other categories of theology (systematic, biblical, philosophical, etc.), so I can hardly complain. Again, this book I am already finding inspirational for our training programs here, as well as for our newest book. Looking forward to finishing it.