Clinical Trials

Clinical Trials:
Theology as Translation and Innovation

“Clinical translation is the process used to turn scientific knowledge into real world medical treatments. Researchers take what they have learned about how a tissue usually works and what goes wrong in a particular disease or injury and use this information to develop new ways to diagnose, stop or fix what goes wrong. Before being marketed or adopted as standard of care, most treatments are tested through clinical trials. Sometimes, in attempting new surgical techniques or where the disease or condition is rare and does not have a large enough group of people to form a clinical trial, certain treatments might be tried on one or two people, a form of testing sometimes referred to as innovative medicine.”

What if I substituted the word religious or theological throughout this paragraph? What is theology? One of theology’s objectives is turning theological dogma and doctrine into real world applications, beliefs, and practices so that believers can translate the abstract into the concrete, or better yet join the theoretical and practical into an integrated worldview. What if theologians spent as much time not only thinking about the tradition per se but using the traditions to “develops new ways” to diagnose, stop, or fix what has gone wrong with the tradition or to enhance and expand what works in the tradition? What if the standard of care for theologians was testing ideas and practices through clinical trials? As noted in the paragraph, religious people face so many strange and daunting situations (like the scientist or healthcare researcher who faces rare conditions or diseases), that they often don’t know what to believe or what to do. Theology should help people to try things out, testing them in practice (even in those really rare situations) to see how innovative beliefs/practices and tradition coincide to meet the standards of caring for God’s people. Innovative theological work requires trial and error, asking questions, and developing new ideas within communities.

For example, a new article in the LA Times and Wall Street Journal released the findings of a scientific journal that claims approximately 65% of cancers that humans have are simply the result of “bad luck,” not from the way humans live or from the environment. If I have a friend who is diagnosed with one of these cancers, and know that it is simply her “bad luck” or that it is “chance” or the way the stem cells divide, what does that have to do with her or my theological beliefs about how God acts in the world? About what kind of pastoral care I might give to her or the family? How does this information affect the way I preach and worship? The “standard of care” for Christian theologians should not simply be to offer the usual platitudes like “God has a plan for you” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Here the Christian tradition can fail the believer by implying that God’s plan for an individual is to inflict a lethal illness as part of same grander scheme. Or worse yet, that the pain and suffering of illness (from cancer to depression) is a gift of God and should we fail to “hold up” under the pressure of the suffering than we have not only failed ourselves, but also failed God. The standard of care should require Christian theologians to understand the illness, to translate the tradition, and maybe even offer some innovative beliefs and practices that help the person to live with the faith, not in spite of it.

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Virgin Births

Virgin Births and why they matter: because our bodyselves matter


So, I ask again, why does the Virgin Birth matter to Christians? For some Christians, it falls in the same “literal” category as the “creation” accounts—these Biblical narratives are factual accounts and that is what constitutes the “truth” of the faith. While I tend not to fall into this category of “literalism” I surely understand part of the concern. If the Christian faith has no grounding in the way things really are, if Christianity is simply a “myth” in a simplistic way, then it will not matter to the flesh and blood of creation. I believe that Christianity is “literally” grounded in the Incarnation—God dwells in the creation, sets up camp in this world.


So, the incarnation is a beginning point for me in understanding events like the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, and transfiguration of Jesus the Christ. And if I believe that God created this world then incarnation and creation are in a sense, one and the same. Or to put this in the words of the early church fathers and mothers: grace is not something “extra” added onto nature, but grace inheres in and perfects nature. Nature is good, created by God, and the place in which God dwells.


So often when something extraordinary happens, Christians label it as a “miracle,” that is, something done outside of the natural world by a supernatural force (God). This supernatural God interferes/intervenes periodically with special providence. For some Christians, this works. It does not for me because I would rather believe that there is so much more to nature and God’s relationship to nature that we can know or understand. I find some of the Eastern Orthodox theology helpful at this point: that divine grace is not something “added” to the creation, but is indeed in the act of creation itself. (Maximos the Confessor) God is present “in”, “with”, and “under.” This sacramental language is also present in much of the Western tradition. This is a version of what we might call panentheism.


When I think about the Virgin Birth, I think about God’s grace co-inhering in the natural order. God’s incarnation doesn’t come apart from it, but deeply within it—in Mary’s womb, even if it is in ways, which we do not understand. Modern science can help us interpret much of the natural world, revealing how complex and mysterious God’s creation really is. The process of birth, of parthenogenesis, of reproduction is amazing in and of itself. But there is always “the more,” the mystery that transcends or deepens our awareness of God’s creation. God takes the world so seriously that God enters into divine partnership with Mary, a poor Jewish woman, to become incarnate. Mary does give her consent. I believe the Virgin Birth is not about “purity” or “sexual abstinence.” These notions of “purity” can be dangerous in a world that already discounts women and the poor. What God does is much more than that. And what Mary does is certainly more than being a passive, pure “vessel.” To quote Philip Hefner: “We are what nature can become.” And this is because God becomes within us, in our bodyselves, fully and naturally in Christ. The virgin conception of Mary is not some supernatural, external magic trick by an intervening God but instead a manifestation of the gracious, creative God who so loves the world that God chooses to become deeply embodied within it.

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Memory and God

DSC00945Do This in Remembrance of Me

From: The Way We Were
Memories, light the corners of my mind
Misty watercolor memories of the way we were.
Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind
smiles we gave to one another
for the way we were.
Can it be that it was all so simple then
or has time erased every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
tell me would we? Could we?
Memories, may be beautiful and yet
what’s too painful to remember
we simply choose to forget

Read more: Barbara Streisand – The Way We Were Lyrics | MetroLyrics

What happens when we can’t remember? When we find that we are not our memories gathered over a lifetime? We each have our own gallery of “misty watercolor memories” that line the hallways of our minds. Like the lyric of the song, some things we remember because they are beautiful and poignant, while others we would rather forget because they haunt our present with images of the past. Sometimes we can choose to forget while other times the power of self-editing our memories is beyond our control. And for others who have some kind of disease that causes memory loss, their memories gathered over a lifetime come and go in fragments, vanish when least expected, and often disappear when most desired.

I am baffled about what our memory really is and why we often call illnesses like dementia an illness of the mind. Where is our mind? Is it encased in our brains? Or does it extend into the environment around us? Or is it buried deep within us and memories come to consciousness through our bodies that are part of our minds? Maybe our memories are our body-selves, both embedded within, under, and around us. For those who can’t recall a memory, or forget who they are in the present moment, maybe they still have not “lost their minds” for their bodies will surely recall in some capacity who they are and the connections that they know through the touch of a hand, a song that they memorized, the smells of foods that they love, or the image of a loved one that hangs on their wall. Or maybe our minds are extended through the relationships that we have—with others who remember for us, through the objects that we use to write and orient ourselves. I think our mind extends and embodies ourselves in ways that are much more than our brains, than our selves alone. Our minds are body-selves in relationship with other body-selves, and ultimately re-membered by the God who suffers and remembers all our losses.

Do this in remembrance of me has taken on new meaning for me. The sacramental touch, fragrance, taste, sight, and sound of God literally re-members the way that our body-selves have been dis-membered, whether that is through illness, time, disengagement, or disconnection. To be remembered by God is to know that whether or not we can remember is not the point—for even if we can’t tell our own story, or we forget what it is, God knows our story and our story is part of God’s. We are called to tell the stories of others whose memory has failed them. We become each other’s memories when we do for each other what God does in memory of all God’s creatures.

The rituals and remembrances, practices and places of our Christian faith become remembered in our body-selves through the way we embody them. God’s incarnation literally re-minds us whose we are even when we forget.

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God talk

Reforming God-talk


One way to reform theology is to simply bring together those who are usually kept apart. Why not create inter-generational theological discussions that matter? One of my students, Elisa Berndt, is a spiritual intern at Touchmark At All Saints—a Senior Retirement Residence—in Sioux Falls, SD. What she is discovering is that some college students and senior citizens hold something in common that is very important: a deep longing and desire to find ways to make God-talk relevant to their lives.


Once a week Elisa Berndt meets with several women (who are in their 80s and 90s) to discuss the theology of Rob Bell’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. College students are not the only ones in our “youth-driven” culture who often assume that “senior citizens” have their minds made up already and that new ideas are not welcome, particularly ones about their religious convictions. Many of us assume that the concerns of one generation have nothing in common with the other. Contrary to these stereotypes, Elisa has spoken with me about the profound and very meaningful theological conversations she is having with these women from week to week. Their long lives have been marked by deep joy and profound tragedies. They want to think and talk about how the paradoxes of their lives meet up with the concepts and beliefs of their Christian faith. Many of the women are tired of the same sort of question-answer Bible studies that their denominations send their way. Their questions can’t be met with answers, but often require more questions and lengthy discussion. Elisa and I are hoping that at some point this semester my 24 students in the “God” class can invite these women over to Augustana College to all talk about God. We hope that this is one way new discussions will emerge about God, life, and how we are all connected as theologians.

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Playing God

Playing God

When we use the phrase, “playing God,” it’s often in the context of issues related to science and technology. Example: If humans are seemingly overextending the boundaries of their power and knowledge when they mess with the human genome, then they are “playing God.” In the news once again, a family is demanding that a hospital keep their loved one on “life sustaining machines” even though the individual has been pronounced brain dead (which is the legal definition of death).[1] In such situations, we accuse each other of playing God, as if the only function of God is to “pull the plug.” Playing God—who is this God that we say is at play? A God who steps in now and then to pull plugs? Is this God really nothing more than an all-controlling deity whose sole function is to begin and end life? If so, then I believe as a Christian we have limited God to the fears we have about our own power and control over our mortality. We are fundamentally fearful that we really are mortal and so we try in any way possible to overcome the limitation of our mortality. Death, not life drives our language of “playing God.” Such language finds its roots in the caricature of the classical theistic God—the Omni God—and in our pathological fear of finitude.

But such a God is hardly the one we read about in Philippians whose power is found in weakness, who comes to us in the form of a slave. God comes in the opposite of what we expect. So if we are playing God, might it not be more appropriate to say that such divine interaction is about suffering with the creation that groans in travail? That as Christians, if we are to play God, we must become like Christ so that we can bear our neighbor’s burdens, become witnesses to the suffering of those who are in pain and anguish? To play God is to bear witness to the fragility of our life. The kenotic action of God’s play is a drama lived out in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this play, new life and resurrection comes only when we fully know and acknowledge the death of our old life. To play God is to realistically face death in order to fully experience resurrection. This kind of theological play might transform the decisions we make from fearful ones to faithful ones.

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new releases children’s books

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Jack in the Box by Gary Pederson

So excited to support my husband’s book:

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