When things are at their worst, Christianity is intensely enacted

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Woman confessing by Alexandre EggertA new University of Copenhagen PhD thesis has taken a look at faith as practiced in the daily lives of Danish cancer survivors. The thesis shows that Christian beliefs play a significant role in the lives of people suffering from cancer, and that their faith is often displayed in ways that challenge common perceptions of what Christianity is.

“My results show that people’s individual Christian faith becomes present during times of personal crisis. Faith and hope manifest themselves very intensely, but it is rare that they show in the classical forms we normally associate with Christianity. Rather than a single and static set of beliefs, everyday Christianity constantly unfolds in multiple ways and in relation to others,” says Christine Tind Johannessen-Henry, a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Theology.

Connections between faith and cancer

Christine Tind Johannessen-Henry carried out her research in collaboration with the Danish Cancer Society Research Center, as part of a cross-disciplinary project involving theology and health sciences. The research involved a questionnaire study of 1,043 people who have survived cancer; 20 of these survivors were also involved in an interview study with participant observation.

“The results of the study show that the deeper the crisis people find themselves in, the higher the level of validation of their various forms of faith and beliefs in God, while they also experience a greater will to live and more vibrant sense of being. The diverse forms of beliefs and hopes are enacted tightly interweaved with situations of confusion, anxiety and joy, all of which emerge as individual pass through diagnosis, chemotherapy, surgery and sequelae. These types of situations manifest in the bodies of the survivors, and continue to affect the individual for long periods of time,” says Christine Tind Johannessen-Henry.

Faith is belief in action

The research, Johannessen-Henry says, found that those participating in the study perform their faith in multiple ways. Denmark is often characterised as a very secular society, which builds on Christian values. The study results show that participants believe in Christian doctrine such as ‘God’ (59%), ‘A loving God’ (55%), ‘A forgiving God’ (49%), ‘Christ’ (51%) and ‘life after death’, in the sense that “the impact someone has had on the lives of others will continue to live on in their hearts after they die” (87%). People’s individual faith, however, shows through more than just utterances which can be determined by “yes” and “no”, but shows through the survivors’ different practices.

“Faith is how we ‘enact’ our beliefs – what we do when we find ourselves in any given situation and must deal with it. One example is when a cancer survivor gives a gift to a relative with the intention that will keep them related after the survivor passes away. Another is when we tell our children that God, angels or deceased family members will take care of them – or even speak to those who we believe will watch over our loved ones – we are, in effect, creating, sharing, giving and receiving faith as a part of a congregation. The images and metaphors we use and use to cope with difficult situations elucidate that Christianity always unfolds in relations and through the life situation of the believer. In this sense Christianity constantly develops, moves and renews and new spaces of faith is created” Johannessen-Henry says.

The relation between dogmatic and everyday Christianity

In her PhD thesis, Johannessen-Henry emphasises the difference between Christianity that is dogmatically practice in theology and Church rituals, and Christianity that people live in their daily lives. These different “Christianities” repeatedly connect and link together, however. The project’s research shows that an individual’s faith constantly moves between ideas from Christian tradition and all sorts of non-Christian elements. According to Johannessen-Henry, these network of faith practises offer an understanding of how a doctrine such as “resurrection” is enacted in everyday life.

“Even though people suffering from cancer hold beliefs that might not be specifically Christian – for example ‘rebirth’ in other and very different versions – the mosaic of the Danish participants faith does incorporate pieces of Christianity – ‘God as loving father’, ‘omnipotence’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘guiding stars’, ‘angels’ – that it is impossible to claim that it isn’t Christian either. The different elements are so tightly woven together that it is impossible to distil perceptions of a ‘real’ Christianity from the ‘manyfolded’ and diverse Christianity,” Johannessen-Henry says.

Christine Tind Johannessen-Henry defended her dissertation, “The Polydoxy of Everyday Christianity. An Empirical-Theological Study of Faith in the Context of Cancer”, Friday 23 August 2013.

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  • http://twitter.com/twbtwb Tim Wilson-Brown

    It’s great to see the varieties of human experience of faith elucidated rather than reduced to a static set of categories.