Siroj SORAJJAKOOL, When Sickness Heals: The Place of Religious Belief in Healthcare. Templeton Foundation Press, 2006. Pp. xx. pb. ISBN-13: 978-1-59947-090-0.
Reviewed by Dolores L. Christie, CTSA/John Carroll University, University Heights, OH 44118.

Professor Sorajjakool, who teaches religion, psychology, and counseling at Loma Linda University, sets out to explore whether sickness can move a person to a new interpretation of life’s meaning and thereby bring what he calls “healing to the soul.” His basic premise is that such healing is ultimately a function of finding meaning. He argues that when a person becomes ill, the experience tends to shake the foundations of his or her belief system. Reliance on what a particular tradition tells one to expect of God, or religious practice that may be used to manipulate divine intervention, tends not to work and often brings the person disappointment. Religious bulwarks of hope and expectation are torn away by the reality of illness: Why did God let this happen? Where is God’s miracle to cure this devastating illness? When old perceptions of religious belief and devotion collapse—especially as they fail to provide cure or comfort—the failed meaning systems are challenged. The author notes that people who are ill are driven to ask theological questions. He suggests that the developmental task of the sick person is to reassess and/or adjust his or her personal belief system in the face of the experience of illness. The resultant new sense of meaning is curative. This, he believes, is true not only of physical ailments but of mental illness.

In keeping with a contemporary convention that strives to seek freedom from “religion,” Sorajjakool differentiates spirituality from concrete belief systems. He sees spirituality as an ontological universal drive for meaning, one not irrevocably tied to a particular religious system. This drive is a basic part of the structure of human existence, as people try to make sense of phenomena and experience.

The author utilizes insights from well-known thinkers to demonstrate the need for finding integrative religious symbols. Among those whose work he examines are: Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Macquarrie, and Raimundo Panikkar. The first three get only a paragraph of consideration, while Panikkar’s thinking gets several pages. It is not clear why the author gives some of his experts greater attention, nor why he chooses to expand his treatment of three of them in an appendix. Predictably, given his background, the author spends more time on eastern thinking, especially Buddhism. This disproportionate attention may not be particularly useful to those in pastoral work whose client population comes out of a more western tradition.

An interesting chapter recounts the integrative journey of philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. The author uses the philosopher’s life story to demonstrate his premise about the developmental journey. Additional materials on Kiefkegaard is offered in an appendix. It documents in greater detail the diagnosis, symptoms, and course of the philosopher’s illness.

. The book is very well organized and clear. While its treatment is grounded in good scholarship, the author draws in the reader with a generous selection of poignant anecdotes. These save the earlier sections of the book from becoming too philosophical. A minor flaw—Sorajjakool attributes to Leo Bascaglia a quotation that is from Antoine Saint Exupery in Le Petit Prince—does not affect the efficacy of the book as a whole.

While the book promises some suggestions for those in spiritual care, the practical portion is less developed than other sections, disappointing the reader who is looking for help in dealing with clients who suffer serious illness. The reader must persevere until near the end of the book to find these rather good nuggets of helpful strategies. If one teaches religion the book offers little new. If one is engaged in pastoral work and would like a philosophical foundation for the connections between illness and spirituality, the book will be a helpful read. It would be a useful book for parish nurses in that it supplies background to which they may not have been exposed in their professional training as nurses.

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