For years what ER has really needed was a good chaplain written in. They've had clergy come in as patients and occasionally had clergy come in to minister to a dying person but no chaplain. Well, this season they finally get one and she is so lame it hurts.
Last night's episode is a case in point. One story line saw a prison doctor save the life of a young boy from drowning. It turns out that he was responsible for executing 17 prisoners including the boy's father. He has come to the conviction that he was wrong to execute these prisoners and is now doing everything he can to make amends to the families before he dies. He is convinced that what he has done isn't enough and that he will be condemned to hell for killing the inmates. The doctors call in the chaplain to help relieve his torment and she is as helpful as spitting on a forest fire.
She says nothing of significance, doesn't understand his fear, and walks away distraught because she was able to bring no relief. In a scene with one of the doctors she says that she was ordained, she studied Buddhism, she went to an ashram, she thought that kind of synthesized approach would be good in a hospital but what people want when they are suffering is certainty and she can't provide it. Well, duh.
The issue of how to provide spiritual care in secular institutions is a complex one but I don't think the answer is to create some kind of weird esperanto of religious language that speaks to no one and for no one. There is an implicit criticism of the patient in describing what he wants as certainties. I think that what is at the base of this is the idea that people who are firmly within a religious tradition and take the worldview seriously are really people looking for fixed answers because they can't handle ambiguity or uncertainty. Someone who is satisfied by her vague, contentless reassurances is obviously much more spiritually mature.
The patient is tormented because he believes he is a moral agent and that his actions have consequences. Her platitudes aren't just useless, they are insulting, because she fails to take him seriously. She is in effect dismissing his ability to earn damnation, not for theological reasons - she isn't arguing that his repentance is all God needs to forgive him or that God does not condemn people to hell - she is neither a Lutheran or an universalist - but because no one would take the idea that human beings can do things worthy of condemnation seriously. When she concludes that she has nothing to offer patients I responded - ain't that the truth!
How different was the story line a few years ago when Luka treats a bishop dying of Lupus. The bishop sees Luka's torment over the death of his family and speaks words of absolution with authority.
Friends would say to me, it is just a tv show, and it is of course. But the issues raised by this episode get played out in chaplaincy programmes in many places. And you have to wonder how many struggling patients/students/prisoners get offered this kind of spiritual pablum.