medicine and religion

Updated: 22 Dec. 2016. Abstract reviewed and accepted.

The past several years I have attended the annual conference in medicine and religion. It is an event that was initially hosted at the University of Chicago for three years and has gathered in Boston and in Houston the past two years. I recently submitted an abstract for a paper that I might deliver at the forthcoming 2017 conference. It is a paper inspired by some of the work I have done for another paper presented at a recent event held at Regent College that took up questions concerning the coinherence of theology and science:

Reconsidering Weberian Secularization:

Seeing the Sacred in Medicine, Again


The central theme of the Annual Conference in Medicine and Religion reflects the centennial claim of Max Weber: “The fate of our time is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” Accordingly, as the conference description instructs, such disenchantment leads modern cultures to treat nature, including human nature, as substance to be manipulated and controlled by an exercise of reason, will, and technique.

By ‘leads’ I take that to mean that the secularization thesis proposed does have a pedagogical influence, training us to see the world, nature, technology, and ourselves, differently. We have come to learn, for example, that modern culture has appreciably benefitted from such modes of knowing and doing. That is to say, as one might experience in medicine, the precedence of science and the concomitant pledge to technological resolutions to human problems are bolstered by our well being. And such well being—to emphasise the circular feedforward mechanism at work—is further safeguarded by the advance of technology and the scientific form of knowing. All this influence and well being is the welcomed benefit of the Enlightenment project and serves to explain, as Weberian secularization directs, the waning influence of religions.

For some, however, such an image, although demonstrating certain progress and advantage, is barbarous (see, for example, Michel Henry’s Barbarism). In the solitude of science, as Henry laments, all of life becomes reducible to the mathematical and the mechanical. Freedom and creativity of life is replaced by the homogeneity and efficiency of form and culture, human culture, is lost. For Henry, this is the image of barbarism—the image of our scientific age, sequestered from life itself.

So, for some, Weber’s allusion to the disenchanted world is a gift, a gift of progress and buffered life. For others, the allusion is presented with hazard and woeful concern. I am committed to a middle way, so I am want to challenge both the uncritical acceptance and the pure protest of the corresponding Weberian secularization thesis. In so challenging, I want to revisit Weber’s die Entzauberung der Welt and challenge the forms of uncritical modern secularism that labour to narrate the sacred as waves retreating from shore but are otherwise unable to see their own religiosity. Yet I want also to press back against unhelpful suspicions of scientific and technological progress that present premodern utopian ideals as normative and natural. I want to argue, while adopting the language of coinherence (vis a vis theologian Charles Williams) and the corresponding theory of secularization introduced by Bronislaw Szerszynski (see his Nature, Technology, and the Sacred), that modern science and technology have not so much desacralized the world, but have become the instruments for sacralizing the world in new ways—science determining the order and technology establishing the means for how we ought to live; science as revelation and technology as orthopraxy. I want to use the art and science, the institution, of medicine as the principal loci from which to challenge the Weberian thesis and to introduce an alternative narrative, demonstrating how nature continues to be enchanted and how technology serves a ceremonial function.

By pursuing this line of thought, we might circumvent the trappings that perceive, in modern science and technology, the soteriological promise of overcoming contingency and finitude by means of rational enquiry and technological powers. We might also circumvent an increasingly common response to the promotion of science and technology, which, and this might ring familiar, calls for the withdrawal of their pre-eminence such that nature, or the good, might be regained (consider, as an example, the rise of complementary and alternative medicines). By engaging in this exercise, I will point towards a content-full/ thick analysis and repositioning of the Weberian secularization thesis such that we might learn to ‘see the sacred’, if you will, in its maligned forms and in its right footing.