Clergy explore faith and medicine in YDS’ Lifelong Learning Program

Faith and medicine have historically been responsible for very different kinds of healing. A new class at YDS explores what they have in common.
Five people posing for a photo at a luncheon event.

Debora Jackson, center, with fellows of the Divinity School's new Lifelong Learning Program, which she directs. Maj. Charles Seligman, seated to Jackson's left, travels to New Haven monthly from Ramstein Air Base in Germany for the continuing education program.

Major Charles Seligman, a U.S. Air Force chaplain stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, has traveled to Yale monthly since August to study the concept of healing.

Seligman is one of 15 clergy participating in Yale Divinity School’s (YDS) recently launched Lifelong Learning Program, which this semester is centered on a new course, “Theology and Medicine,” that examines contemporary medical care from a theological perspective.

The program has been worth the monthly 3,700-mile journey, he said.

I do a lot of grief counseling — working with wounded warriors and helping them to cope with the trauma they have endured,” said Seligman, who served multiple tours in Iraq. “So much of what we’re covering in this program applies to that work.”

The continuing-education fellows gather on campus for a daylong session once a month. They participate in a luncheon discussion seminar and then join the theology and medicine class, which meets weekly and is attended by YDS students. Following the class, the fellows debrief to discuss how the ideas they learned about could apply to their work.

Dr. Benjamin Doolittle ’91 B.S. ’94 M.Div. ’97 MD, associate professor of medicine and of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, and Mark Heim, a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School, co-lead "Theology and Medicine," which explores modern medicine from a theological perspective. (Photo by Terry Dagradi.)

Dr. Benjamin Doolittle ’91 B.S. ’94 M.Div. ’97 M.D., associate professor of medicine and of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, and Mark Heim, a visiting professor at YDS, co-lead the class and work with the fellows.

There is a heightened sense of energy when the fellows are present,” said Doolittle. “I think the students greatly benefit from their presence. It sparks all sorts of conversations, connections, and mentorship. It’s been a lot fun.”

YDS established the Lifelong Learning Program this year to provide clergy and lay people opportunities to deepen and extend their understanding and practice of their faith traditions, said Debora Jackson, who was appointed director of lifelong learning in January.

An important element of the program has been broadening outreach beyond students and alumni to anyone interested in studying and applying their faith, she said, adding that tightening budgets has made it difficult for clergy to find opportunities for professional development.

The cohort of fellows includes pastors from congregations, both urban and suburban, in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Seligman, who learned of the program via social media, attends on orders from the Air Force.

 “There are people from every different walk of life,” Seligman said. “It’s great to be part of each other’s personal journey.”

Doolittle and Heim, the Samuel Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School — which became formally affiliated with YDS in July — devised the theology and medicine course this summer through their shared interest in the interplay of science, medicine, and religious faith.   

This class is unique,” said Doolittle, who is a pastor and physician. “We reflect on how medicine and theology intertwine, and we keep coming back to this question: How does healing happen?”

The class has approached the question from numerous perspectives. The YDS students have followed Doolittle on his rounds at Yale Medical Center and visited the anatomy lab where medical students examine cadavers. They have studied Hildegard of Bingen, the philosopher and Catholic saint, who asserted that the human body is a garden and healing occurs when God’s power blossoms through the body. They have compared her ideas to the theories of Stanley Hauerwas '65 B.D., '67 M.A., '68 Ph.D., an American theologian and ethicist, who believes that healing happens through membership in the church body.   

The life cycle inverted’

A session in November focused on suffering and healing as depicted by playwright Tony Kushner in “Angels in America.” Prior to the class, the fellows received powerful perspectives on the HIV/AIDS crises during a luncheon talk with Dr. Gerald Friedland, emeritus professor in the Departments of Medicine and Epidemiology and Public Health, and Peter Hawkins, professor of religion and literature at the Divinity School. 

Four people seated at a table during a panel discussion.
Dr. Gerald Friedland and Peter Hawkins share their experiences during the HIV/AIDS epidemic at a luncheon with the Lifelong Learning fellows. (Photo by Moriah Felder ’19 M.Div.)

Friedland, the former director of the AIDS Program at Yale, described his experiences working on an AIDS ward in the Bronx during the early 1980s. Hawkins, who has written about the AIDS Memorial Quilt, discussed his experience of caring for his partner, Luis, who died of the disease in 1990.

Friedland recalled the horror of watching scores of young patients languish and die.

It was terrible,” he said. “We’re not used to seeing the life cycle inverted. These were young people dying inexorably of a painful and disfiguring disease.”

His patients were wrapped in layers of stigma concerning drug use, sexual orientation, or race and ethnicity, he said.

A lot of things weren’t understood about HIV,” he said, adding that health care workers often were scared of contracting the virus. “Not everyone was kind to our patients.”

Guerilla bands” of health care workers, including doctors, nurses, social workers, and clergy, formed to care for patients and meet the crises head on, he said. Those bands spawned formal HIV/AIDS programs at institutions throughout the country, including at Yale, he said.

What we learned first is that the ethic of medicine is not just curing — in fact we cure very few diseases,” he said. “Caring is imperative.”

Friedland said his colleagues sought compassionate methods to ease suffering and provide their patients a decent death, he said. These efforts continued after patients had died because it was difficult to find funeral homes willing to serve AIDS patients, he said.

A funeral director joined our team because he was attracted to the situation instead of repelled by it,” he said.

Hawkins witnessed the disease ravage Luis, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987. At the time, Hawkins was teaching at YDS, but was not yet open at Yale about being gay.

AIDS brought me out as a gay person,” he said.

As he took on the responsibility of caring for Luis, Hawkins informed his dean of the situation.

Every door was opened,” he said. “Every kindness was extended to me.”

He described visiting Luis each day in the intensive care unit. One day, a nurse approached him to say that Luis was not doing well.

One says, ‘Of course he’s not doing well, he’s dying,’ but I took what she meant,” he said. “What she meant was ‘Stop this. Get him out of this situation. He’s not comfortable.’”

Hawkins described the experience of having a loved one removed from life support and watching him die.

He died in my arms peacefully and tranquilly,” he said.

These stories of suffering and compassion resonated with Seligman, who has worked in the infectious disease clinic at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

It paralleled a lot with my experiences,” he said.

Intensive engagement

Theology and Medicine” represents first time YDS has specifically designed a course to include both life-long learning fellows and degree-seeking students, Jackson said.

The fellows are coming in for some very intentional and intensive engagement, which makes this unique,” she said.

In designing the program and course, Jackson, Doolittle, and Heim sought to balance theory and practice.

A professor and his students examining historical manuscripts.
Doolittle and students of "Theology and Medicine" peruse historical medical manuscripts at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. (Photo by Terry Dagradi.)

The coursework is very much in the academy and theological scholarship, but these are practitioners and we want to talk about how to apply what they’ve learned to their churches and communities in a meaningful way,” she said.

Bishop Mary Walton, pastor of Holy Nation Tabernacle Sounds of Praise and a fellow in the program, said she has always perceived a connection between medicine, healing, and religious faith and was excited to examine that relationship with Yale scholars.  

I teach at a local Bible college and one of my students works in the oncology ward at Yale New Haven Hospital,” Walton said. “She told me how one of her patients was flourishing despite being very ill. The woman said she drew strength from her faith and I thought, ‘That’s how it’s supposed to be.’ It made me want to study the issue further, which made this program a perfect fit.”

As a pastor and physician, Doolittle is well suited to instruct clergy on the relationship between religion and medicine.

The medicine side of things is easy, but everything else is really hard,” he said. “I think patients come to their physicians because they’re not feeling well, but to feel better doesn’t always come from a pill, or a scan, or a blood test — deeper things are happening.”

The coursework combines the worlds of church and hospital, he said.

Those worlds are so different,” he said. “The church experience is community and worship with the language of hope and care, community and love, and that just feels so different from a hospital. Maybe making clergy more comfortable with the language and the space of a hospital, and the field of medicine, will help them translate these questions to parishioners.”

Walton praised Heim and Doolittle for making the course material engaging and relevant to the responsibilities of a working minister.

She said a session on burnout among physicians and clergy helped her to realize that, though she will at times become weary of her work, she can count on her faith to restore her enthusiasm for service.

We see that God was always there,” she said.

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