July 2, 2001
Religion and Social Work
-- Martin E. Marty
Sighting "spirituality" alongside or overlapping with "religion" and "faith" is easier to do every week. Call the evidences of it also evidences of the "de-secularization" of American life. The newest field in which one can do spotting and sighting is social work. See D. W. Miller's article on "Programs in Social Work Embrace the Teaching of Spirituality" in the May 18 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18. (Access to an ongoing discussion of the article is also available.)
Social work, as Miller points out, had religious roots. But a century ago as it developed, most professionals felt a need to distance themselves from religion, and religionists countered. For example, years ago I gave a lecture and wrote an article "This Godless Social Service Nonsense," quoting evangelist Billy Sunday. The problem with efforts by professionals in social work and religious camps to reach a stand-off was this: the clients of social workers would not stand where the "god-less" wanted to place them. Those clients often asked religious questions, and not to respond to their situations often meant failing them. Social workers could not permanently shun these issues.
Of course, today "religion" in the most broad and thin and generic senses goes by the code-name "spirituality." That seems to be a safer, more distant, easier way to help citizens "separate church and state" and avoid dogma, institutions, and all those bad things. Yet as one reads Miller on Edward R. Canda (University of Kansas), a main advocate of spirituality-and-social work, it is clear that he and his fellow advocates talk about many of the same things clergy and religionists in general talk about: "a sense of meaning, purpose, and connectedness." Try doing that without intersecting with the concerns of faith and religion.
Critics have arisen: there are dangers that the movement, spreading rapidly in social work schools, can lead to sectarian and proselytizing over-reaches. There are also questions about competency, about how to train people to deal with spiritual issues. Other critics do smell that "spirituality" and "religion" clearly overlap.
To Canda's credit, he is aware of all these difficulties, and he does not promote easy paths to acceptance of his efforts. Perhaps more than he is aware, as chaplains are also finding out, code-naming something "spiritual," as is the current tendency, is not a way of avoiding the controversies that go with "religion."
To anyone concerned about religion, spirituality, or faith in the public sphere, here is one more alert: it is not credible to address profound human needs without touching upon "meaning, purpose, and connectedness." And it is very difficult to refer to and use those concepts appropriately.
Here as so often: handle with care! But, indeed, handle . . .