Standing in the Midst of Hopelessness and Hearing that G-d has Embraced Us in Spite of Ourselves -- By Robert C. Powell, MD, PhD

05 May 2014 9:49 PM | Perry Miller, Editor (Administrator)

Standing in the Midst of Hopelessness and
Hearing that G-d has Embraced Us
in Spite of Ourselves

– Comments Honoring the Rev. Dr. J. Harold Ellens –

delivered at the 22nd Plenary Meeting of the 

College of Pastoral Supervision & Psychotherapy, Virginia Beach, VA.

“There is a discernible interaction between
experiencing G-d’s unconditional acceptance,
experiencing the therapist’s transference acceptance, and
experiencing the ability to accept and change oneself … .” 1

“Dunbar … . held that becoming 

‘free to think and act’ was 

an accomplishment open to all … .” 2

– on the 235th anniversary of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace”.

– on the 85th anniversary of H[elen] Flanders Dunbar’s Symbolism in Medieval Thought ….

– on the 65th anniversary of Seward Hiltner’s Pastoral Counseling.

– on the 55th anniversary of Wayne Oates’ Introduction to Pastoral Counseling.

– on the 25th anniversary of Carroll Wise’s The Meaning of Pastoral Care.

– on the 10th anniversary of Perry Miller’s “A Reflection on CPSP’s Chapter Life”.

– on the 5th anniversary of the CPSP report, “Task Force on the Future”.

Forty-five years ago – in 1969 – I first became curious about the work of Helen Flanders Dunbar – when I learned that this pioneer in psychosomatic research had a bachelor of divinity degree. The next five years of my life then were devoted to demonstrating that Dunbar’s earning of a theological degree was no accident. While Anton T. Boisen was the indisputable founder of the movement for professional chaplaincy – specifically, clinical pastoral chaplaincy – it was Dunbar who – from 1931 until 1936 – ran both the psychosomatic and chaplaincy movements, side by side, out of one office. Dunbar had no problem viewing therapy as all encompassing – of religion and medicine – of all of religion and all of medicine – of mind and body.

Who of us has not – at more times than we might want to remember – needed therapy? Who of us has not – at more times than we might want to remember – been among the world’s suffering, bewildered, or vulnerable souls?

Dunbar’s was an almost medieval view that healing and wholeness are available to all those seeking help – even us – if those offering help will but listen closely, calmly enough to their or our stories, help them or us rediscover their or our forgotten strengths, and guide them or us back toward the path to full recovery. Once the path is seen clearly, Dunbar believed, the world’s suffering, bewildered, or vulnerable souls can be trusted to take it. That is, Dunbar’s view was that healing and wholeness were available to all who once were lost, but now were found – to all who were blind, but now could see.

Dunbar’s patroness, Kate Macy Ladd, focusing on health, concluded that

“health is more than freedom from sickness” [-- that it] resides in 

the wholesome unity of mind and body … and … in 

the patient as an individuality.” 3

She bridged the chasm between mind and body, focusing clearly on the individual as a whole.

Dunbar herself 80 years ago – supported by research – declared that

“In health or in illness it is the whole person that is involved. Thus, 

mental and physical health are indivisible.”4

She bridged the chasm between the mind’s health or illness and the body’s health or illness.

Today’s Dunbar Award honoree, focusing on illness, has suggested that 

“Illness … is [but]

an alternative stage in the experience of growing toward our destiny … .” 

"a process of divergence from the idealized line of growth … .” 

[a process] “which induces various unexpected kinds of growth … .”5

Accepting the unity of mind and body, as well as the unity of the mind’s health or illness and the body’s health or illness, our honoree went on to bridge explicitly the chasm between illness itself and health itself. That is, in our honoree’s view,

“both illness and health are facets of 

the growth process that constitutes life … .”6

This emphasis on the legitimacy of illness as part of life – as nothing of which to be ashamed – is quite significant. This alone, as part of our honoree’s “psychotheology” of healing, perhaps is worthy of the Dunbar Award. Our honoree, however, has done much, much more. After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and classics, our honoree went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in theology and Biblical studies. After earning a doctoral degree in psychology of human communication, our honoree went on to earn a doctoral degree in Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins. After writing The Night Side: The Problem of Evil (1974), our honoree went on to write “Preparation for Combat: Emotional and Spiritual” (1984). Yes, our honoree co-authored Turning Points in Pastoral Care: The Legacy of Anton Boisen and Seward Hiltner (1990). Both The Beauty of Holiness … (1985) and The Destructive Power of Religion (2004) occupied our honoree’s attention – as did the heavily documented best-seller, Sex in the Bible (2006), followed up by The Spirituality of Sex (2009). Our honoree still found the time to translate Friedrich Schleiermacher’s mid-19th century treatise on practical theology (2011).

Our honoree also has devoted a lifetime to explaining explicitly, with increasing clarity, the notion of “universal, unconditional, and radical forgiveness of all humans, forever, from beginning to end” – that both the ill and the healthy do enjoy divine unconditional acceptance, should enjoy the chaplain’s transference acceptance, and may come to enjoy their own acceptance of themselves and change. That is, like Dunbar, our honoree fervently believes that healing and wholeness are available to all. 7

Please join me in welcoming our 13th recipient of the Helen Flanders Dunbar Award for Significant Contributions to Clinical Pastoral Training: the Rev. Dr. Dr. J. Harold Ellens.


1 Ellens, JH. G-d's Grace and Human Health. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1982, p.135. 

2 Dunbar, HF. "What Happens at Lourdes? Psychic Forces in Health and Disease." Forum, 1934;91:226-231, p.226; expanded upon in Powell, RC. “Emotionally, Soulfully, Spiritually ‘Free to Think and Act’: The Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902–59) Memorial Lecture on Psychosomatic Medicine and Pastoral Care.” J Relig Health. Mar 2001;40(1):97-114, p.98; http://www.cpspoffice.org/the_archives/2002/04/emotionally_sou.html .

3 Ladd, KM. Letter of gift [April 24, 1930]. in Act of Incorporation and Mrs. Ladd's of Gift. New York, The Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1930, p. 7.

4 Dunbar, F. “Public Health Aspects of Psychosomatic Problems.” Am J Public Health. Feb 1945;35:117-122, p.118.

5 Ellens, JH. “Toward a Theology of Illness.” J Psychol Christianity. Winter 1984;3(4):61-73, 1984, pp.73, 72. 

6 Ellens, 1984, p.61.

7 Ellens, 2013: http://lifeturnings.com/wordpress/theolog-the-radical-theology-of-the-gospel-of-john-j-harold-ellens/

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Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD is the leading historian of the clinical pastoral movement. Recently, Dr. Powell has been instrimental in the launch of the Boisen Book Project.

Many of his published writings are posted on the Pastoral Report. Readers can use the PR's search engine found on the left side-bar to locate his articles. As a practicing psychiatrist, his writings reflect his daily investment in his clinical practice of providing psychotherapy and care to his patients. Contact Dr. Powell by clicking here.