Kester Brewin on Cancer Theology

April 16, 2012 · 4 comments

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.

First, I want to thank Jake for inviting me to post on this blog series — a huge honour, and a theme that, well — who can hope to do justice to this? All I have are some thoughts from the raw edge Ive read the other posts with great interest, yet Im so aware that its at times like this that theology simply runs out on us, because, as Mike put it so well: Shit happens. There is no reason for it, no necessary cause.

I like that angle from Job. Slavoj Žižek, the Marxist atheist philosopher and cultural commentator, who cant seem to keep his mitts away from Christian themes, commented in his book Violence:

After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith.1

Cancer cannot be sanctified. There is no sacrament in it. And to try is to move away from God, sat by Jobs side, who mourns in agreement that it is, quite simply, meaningless. It happens, and its not good. The divine act here is not theology — words about God — but theopraxis. And the theopraxis of cancer appears to be quite simple. How do I know? Because though I dont know Jake well, a very close friend of mine is currently dying of cancer of the liver. Its highly unlikely that hell survive. It sucks. But Ive learned something about theopraxis:

  1. Dont get in touch and say Im praying for you. Not unless youve cooked a meal, taken the kids out, paid a hospital visit or just sat and been present.
  2. Jokes are still funny. And some dark jokes are still very funny.
  3. Dont say God has a plan for this. He doesnt.
  4. But, in fact, good things can happen. Like cutting through all the crap that built up around a friendship, and realising just how special someone is.
  5. Repent of the fact that it took cancer to cut through this crap, because it shouldnt have done.
  6. Cancer is something that grows out of control, but it neednt be the topic of every conversation. Football still matters, and so does art.

While taking a walk with this friend, we fell to talking about whether it was worth praying for a miracle. My thought was this: Unless you are a hard-core materialist, and, in effect, believe that everything in our lives is determined already by the way the quarks lined up at the Big Bang, then you have to allow for the possibility that this is not it. That there is something else that can happen. And I suppose praying for a miracle is not beating yourself in cries for God to heal, but simply protecting that flame within that lets hope survive, and that refuses to believe that all the options are closed.

Cancer itself has no meaning, but in its meaninglessness it can draw us together to reevaluate our priorities. And, for me, one that keeps popping up is that of our seemingly uncontrolled consumption. Cancer is often a disease of uncontrolled growth. Dis-ease. Its something out of joint, something gone wrong with checks and balances in a system. I hope its not trite to highlight the parallels with the economic systems that worship ever-increasing rates of growth — consuming our earths resources at unsustainable rates, bloating some parts of this world, while others wither.

Facing up to the reality of cancer in a young contemporary has, in a way, pushed me to reflect on the way I lead my own life. Healthy choices — for me and the planet around me. Living lightly, and not going for uncontrolled growth. These are tough issues for a consumer culture that loves having more. But something is out of joint. There is dis-ease. Things are not in balance. This isnt to say that cancer is some kind of divine punishment for a wrong lifestyle: Cancer is truly meaningless. It happens. But the hope within our faith is that we can draw meaning out of what is meaningless, through the theopraxis of learning to love one another better — and that, in the global scheme of things, means living for the good of everyone, whether they be Foxconn workers or Syrian asylum seekers — or friends who are suffering.

Heres the irony: Words explaining that words are not where its at. So enough already, log off now, and, if you can, just quietly, do.

Kester BrewinKester Brewin teaches mathematics in London, and is also a freelance writer and blogger. His two books Signs of Emergence and Other are both available worldwide and have been hailed as some of the best writing to have come out of the emerging theology movement. He is currently finishing a book on pirates, and putting the finishing touches to a novel.

  1. Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. 179. []
  • Libbybouma

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Kesters bullet points are right on. 

  • Mike Stavlund

    Great post, Kester, and a powerful conclusion.  

  • EricG

    Your points 1 through 6 are spot on particularly number 1. People like to pray from a distance, but friends are the ones who take time to talk (particularly listen).

  • KB

    Interesting piece here in the UKs Guardian just some further thoughts.