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Author Archives: Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts

Review of ‘Spirituality and Wellbeing’ edited by Bettina Schmidt and Jeff Leonardi

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Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts finds much to recommend in this edited volume on the connections between spirituality and well-being, not least its global and interdisciplinary approach.

In recent years, the study of spirituality and wellbeing has become increasingly popular, especially this year with the struggles and stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Academic study of wellbeing and spirituality is, however, surprisingly rare despite its pertinence to key debates.

Spirituality and Wellbeing by Schmidt and Leonardi is an excellent contribution to this field, drawing together contributions from healthcare, psychology and religious studies from around the world to form a book that is diverse and interesting, and provides a captivating account of the place of spirituality and wellbeing today. Across the four sections which make up this book (Setting the Scene, The Body in Focus, The Diversity of Perspectives, and Applied Practice), readers encounter contributions which explore the relationship between spirituality and wellbeing across a range of religious, non-religious and religiously ambiguous contexts. Together, these contributions critique the dominance of the Western understanding of spirituality and wellbeing, as well as the contemporary secularity of wellbeing.

The relationship between spirituality and secularity is a major theme of this book, particularly in the context of healthcare. This book helps to address this question through bringing together a variety of voices to explore the locations of wellbeing and spirituality in their contexts. For instance, Wendy Dossett’s chapter on spirituality, belief and discipline in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) discusses tensions surrounding how people place religion within AA, and the implications this can have for the relationship between AA and healthcare. Dossett explains how AA and other Twelve Steps Manual Aid groups classify addiction and recovery in spiritual terms, terming addition as a ‘spiritual malady’ in need of ‘spiritual awakening’ (p. 113). This can be interpreted by AA members and others in a variety of ways, including a relegation of AA to the private realm, outside of the domain of (secular) public health. But it remains the case that the spiritual and religious claims made by AA literature, however members choose to interpret them, is key to the success of the method.

The ongoing debate in this chapter and others is that wellbeing drawn from spirituality is seen as separate and private compared to wellbeing drawn from secular methods, with healthcare and counselling often preferring and prioritising secular methods and conversations over spiritual ones, despite the benefits that the latter can bring.

The book also explores insights from around the world, particularly Brazil, with chapters from Bettina Schmidt and Marta Helena de Freitas. De Freitas interviewed Brazilian health professionals and found that most did not engage with religion and spirituality in their work. They also thought that much more work would be needed to integrate religion and spirituality into health and mental health care. Schmidt’s chapter moves in a different direction, comparing narratives of spirituality and wellbeing in Brazil and the UK. This comparison exposes the ethnocentric perception that the West has of Brazilian medicine, as well as the cultural differences between the UK and Brazil, with Brazilian healthcare emphasising the community’s role in wellbeing far more than its British counterpart.

Thomas Jansen’s chapter on food, self-sacrifice and spiritual practice in Chinese Buddhism moves away from the spirituality and secularity debate, to comment on the interrelationship between bodily nourishment, spirituality and wellbeing in Chinese religion, using the legend of Miaoshan (p. 88). In this chapter, Jansen argues that themes of spiritual aspiration, physicality, social engagement and motherhood found in the legend of Miaoshan were central to the Chinese understanding of wellbeing. The legend also challenges western, centralised and goal-orientated images of wellbeing in favour of a wellbeing that is process-based, relational and diverse (pp. 108-9).

The chapters in Spirituality and Wellbeing not only explore these topics from a mixture of religious and cultural contexts, but also using a range of methods and disciplines: this book offers a mixture of healthcare focused chapters as well as theological contributions. They also shift from focussing on healthcare professionals, to patients and spirituality practitioners, to scriptural and academic contributions. In particular, Louise Spiers’s chapter on autoethnography, epilepsy and spirituality highlights the insights that can be gained from the autoethnographic method, arguing that it can challenge medical responses to epileptiform events and offers a more authentic and accurate understanding of spirituality and wellbeing in the context of epilepsy. This chapter especially highlights the importance of interdisciplinary and interfaith work in the study of spirituality, wellbeing and religion, a theme which runs throughout the book, as well as the importance of diverse methodologies in this field.

This book is an excellent contribution to debates surrounding spirituality, religion and wellbeing, and would be a brilliant resource for both those studying these topics and those generally interested in this field. The book is accessible, rich, diverse and interesting, with chapters filled with questions, and with ideas which challenge traditional Western narratives about the location and nature of the religious, paranormal and spiritual in wellbeing and healthcare.

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TikTok, Pastoral Care and Lockdown Britain

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In this blog, Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts—a member of our Ethical Futures network—offers a positive story about digital technology, reflecting on the recent trend for an innovative form of pastoral care.

In March 2020, Britain was put under a strict lockdown, limiting how much people could interact outside of their homes. I needed something to make me feel better, so I downloaded TikTok.

TikTok is a video sharing app, where creators make short videos—usually lip-synching to songs, audio clips from TV or sounds provided by other creators. The most famous uses of TikTok are perhaps teenagers dancing along to a song or cute animal videos. But what I did not expect was the number of creators on the app using their skills and platform to provide emotional, pastoral and spiritual support in ways which subvert typical methods of pastoral care.

On the surface of it, digital pastoral care is quite straightforward. It denotes pastoral care that uses digital tools and resources to facilitate care. It can range from mundane tasks, like organising meetings over email, to using videoconferencing software to simulate one-to-one pastoral encounters. But TikTok offers the possibility of a different kind of digital pastoral care, detached from its typically dialogical format.

In May, BBC’s Newsround shared several TikToks (short videos shared on the app) created by teachers and dance professionals under the hashtag #helpingpeople. These videos were designed to help people with the isolation and boredom of lockdown by teaching then dance routines, helping them with their maths skills and building a virtual community to celebrate Ramadan.

I decided to investigate how TikTok was helping people with their pastoral and spiritual wellbeing, by exploring the Peace Train trend. Here, creators share videos which share the same calming background music and actively create a pastoral space for viewers to rest, share and encourage one another. These videos can run for as long as the viewer wishes and they are invited to interact through commenting on the video or just taking a moment to reflect with the video playing in the background; with the creator, their pet or a calming view offering them a sense of presence in that moment.

These ‘rest stop’ videos position themselves as a sort of pastoral palate cleanser for viewers, encouraging them to stop scrolling for a while. Additionally, some videos encourage viewers to avoid comparing their lives to those of other creators, or to rest from a constant stream of potentially loud and brightly coloured content. This demonstrates a kind of pastoral care that is mindful of the pastoral needs generated by the use of the app itself. This corresponds with the kind of pastoral care that Angela Gorrell describes, where spiritual care providers attend to the positive and negative experiences that people have online, as well as those they experience outside of social media.

Alongside these space-creating videos, some creators also make content which discusses pastoral issues head on. Here, creators talk directly to the camera, discussing issues like trauma, being overwhelmed or self-esteem and offering (usually non-religious) reflections on these issues.

Equally, some creators offer spiritual reflections which can help to enrich people’s spiritual lives and develop their relationships with God, themselves and the world. Pastor Kevin Wilson, a Youth Minister at Oceanside Seventh-Day Adventist Church, has been declared the CEO of Chai and shares spiritual reflection from his platform alongside videos encouraging viewers to make the best chai.

In a recent interview he says:

“My goal has always been to inject meaning and serotonin into your day with my love for a good cup of chai… [But] it’s not just about chai… There’s more to life than what people can see, touch and feel. I hone in on the idea of meaning. The more you talk about meaning, the more touch points you have that allow you to have an interfaith conversation.”

Together, these videos highlight a new way of doing pastoral care. Through TikTok, people are able to access a kind of pastoral care that is innovative and unique, and totally different to the traditional ways of doing pastoral care that they might otherwise encounter in church. These videos are necessarily one-sided, with creators making videos without knowing who will watch them, and viewers watching them at a distance from the creator. However, this doesn’t necessarily make the care offered any less effective. Instead, it demonstrates the power of digital technology to dislocate pastoral care from physical and temporal space, and from church hierarchies and boundaries. This pastoral care is gentle, individual and diverse, with anyone being able to make and view these videos and benefit from the care being offered there.

If you want to find out more about TikTok pastoral care, a thread of similar videos can be found here.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Behind the mask: uncovering symbols of hope in uncertain times by Matthew Barber-Rowell

Review of ‘What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing’ by Ed Finn by John Reader

Reflecting on emotions as the music returns by Ben Thompson

Is XR undergoing a just transition? by Matthew Stemp

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