Carol Howard Merritt on Cancer Theology

May 7, 2012 · 1 comment

Cancer & Theology

This post is a part of a series which features an assortment of adroit voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series.

Our family is moving. As we pack up our stuff, making sure that each item is securely packaged, I’m also shifting things inside myself. My husband is going to start a new church. For the first time in fourteen years, I will not be a pastor serving a particular congregation.

As I sorted through this transition, my daughter asked why I loved being a pastor so much. I thought about my job and a list of duties ran through my head. It was not the business meetings, volunteer arm-twisting, or endless emails that made me satisfied at the end of a long day. I enjoyed preaching and teaching, but when I imagined what I loved, the first thing that came mind was that invitation to a person's side during those sacred moments.

"I'm with people in the most difficult times of their lives," I answered. "I pray with them and try to remind them that God is with them." I remembered the days of sitting beside a hospital bed, holding hands, praying the Psalms, and eventually standing over a person as they journeyed over from life to death. The experience always transformed us — both of us. When we understood our mortality, that feeling of absolute dependence grew and we learned something about God.

As I moved the boxes up to the attic, I was thankful for our sturdy, climate controlled, weather-proofed home. We lived here for almost seven years. When it was cold, we stayed warm. When it rained, we remained dry. When it was hot, I turned on the air conditioner. Even when a hurricane hit last year, the only destruction the storm could manage was blowing off a bit of side trim.

Most of us have houses that keep us separated from the outside elements. Many of us have jobs in offices with air conditioning and heat. Usually, we drive from our homes to work with regulated temperatures in our cars.

In the history of the world, have we ever done such a superb job controlling our environment? I don’t mean the larger environment — that is terribly out-of-whack. I just mean those tiny, dry, 73 degree bubbles in which we work and live — the rooms that are full of the humming of computers, the buzzing of lightbulbs, and the whispers from air-blowing vents.

I wonder if that particular, personal comfort is a small part of why there is a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward religious beliefs in our country. Think about it. If it stormed and we felt the brutality of wind and soak, if our food source came directly from the soil in our own fields, and if a water shortage meant nothing to drink, I imagine we would pray a bit more. Instead, we find shelter, go to the grocery store, and turn on a faucet.

In short, we’re out of touch with our own mortality. We pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," when our real supplication may be "God, help me to stay on this diet." When we come face-to-face with our human frailty, we tend to learn something about the nature of God. As it is, many of us do not feel that absolute dependence.

This Atlantic Monthly article says that when we become more aware of the end of our lives, we long to become a part of something larger than ourselves. I have certainly seen that happen. I appreciate this analysis, and yet it tends to reduce religion to a Terror Management tool. Religion becomes one of those moving boxes, a place where we can enfold our fears in order to get them out of the way. Terror Management Theory does not convey the flood peace and strength that the presence of God can give in these times of waiting beside the bed.

Usually, I sit with people who have cancer. Cancer creeps into the sturdiest of homes and even when we are dry and seventy-three degrees, it reminds us of our mortality. If we live long enough, most of us will have an irregular tumor, lump in the breast, blood in our urine, or another tell-tale sign of cancer’s effect. Cancer can leave us with fear and desperation. It can cut lives much too short. Other times, we become inspired by the great resilience of people who beat the odds. We want to grasp on to life with all of its abundance, extracting meaning from each moment.

In all of it, we understand the depth of what Friedrich Schleiermacher called the "feeling of absolute dependence." We become fully aware that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. Schleiermacher is considered to be the father of liberal Christian theology; however, I think he has had a considerable, unwitting impact on evangelical theology as well. (The "feeling of absolute dependence" sounds a lot like the "God-shaped vacuum" to me.) His work impacts us all.

As our lives move and shift, as we sort out the importance of who we are, as we gain perspective on our days, and as we struggle with something as profound as cancer, may we always be aware of our absolute dependence.

Carol Howard MerrittCarol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Reframing Hope and Tribal Church. She blogs at, which is hosted by the Christian Century and she cohosts God Complex Radio with Derrick Weston.

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  • Jlavoy

    Interesting comment about Schleiermacher. He was raised in a pietist tradition the Moravians who are liturgical forerunners of emotional evangelicalism. They still exist within that tension of emotion and empiricism, and theres beauty in that. I guess its our job as pastors to identify the visceral and emotional that exists within our regulated lives.