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Theologisches Seminar | Theologische und Religionswissenschaftliche Fakultät

Interview with Simon Peng-Keller at the European Network of Research on Religion, Spirituality and Health

Simon Peng-Keller grew up in Chur (Switzerland) and is married with Dr. Ingeborg Peng-Keller. After studying theology in Fribourg / Switzerland and Lucerne he worked for four years in the parish of Liebfrauen / Zurich. Back at the University of Fribourg he earned his doctorate with a thesis on mysticism research and qualified as a professor in the subjects of fundamental theology and theology of spirituality.
In 2015 he was elected as professor of spiritual care at the University of Zurich. At the same time Simon Peng-Keller teaches theology of spirituality at the Theological College of Chur. Together with his wife Ingeborg he offers spiritual exercises in the Lassalle-Haus (CH) and in the Black Forest.

1. Which book is currently on top of your writing desk or bedside table?
There are stacks of books on various topics: pain therapy, narrative research and classics on Christian spirituality. On top of this last stack is Teresa of Avila’s „Interior Castle“.
2. What was the decisive factor for you to accept the call for the new professorship of spiritual care in Zurich?
In the new professorship different topics come together that were on my mind for
many years: spirituality, health care chaplaincy and experiences at the end of life. To establish a new research and teaching area in a highly evolving field, holds many opportunities I would like to make use of in the best possible way.
3. What are your research and teaching emphases so far? What topics in the spectrum of spiritual care particularly interest you?
I have a doctorate and habilitation in fundamental theology and theology of spirituality. I was always interested in interdisciplinary bridging. So for instance my doctorate dealt with the psychological and phenomenological mysticism research of the internist Carl Albrecht. In the context of the professorship of spiritual care, I would like to continue my previous research on imaginative experience at the end of life, on narratives about dying, and on prayer, as well as tackle new subject areas such as the question on the nature of spiritual pain.
4. What is your personal contribution as a theologian and the genuine contribution of theology itself in the interdisciplinary field of spiritual care?
Theology keeps the question of the reality of God awake and can help to ensure
that it will be considered also in the context of spiritual care. In addition, theology
brings the reflective knowledge of pastoral care theory and training as well as the fundamental theological art of mediating between different spheres of discourse into the strongly medically coined discourse in spiritual care. Especially the latter is important for this interdisciplinary field.
5. What priorities have you set for building up the professorship?
It is mainly two goals that guide me at present: on the one hand to develop solid and practical courses for medical and theological students at the University of Zurich, on the other hand to build a research team which pursues current issues of spiritual care in a manner as broad-based as possible.
6. What research projects do you and your team currently work on?
The ongoing projects deal with the question of narrating and dreaming at the end
of life, praying in clinical contexts, possibilities of interprofessional spiritual care training and documentation, with spiritual pain and the so-called oneiroid experience.
7. What should the professorship of spiritual care in Zurich both nationally and internationally stand for, be known for, in a few years?
I would be delighted if our research approaches would add weight to the perspective of the affected, in the scientific discourse as well as in the health care system. Furthermore we would like to advance the quest of an interprofessional spiritual care.
8. What are, in your opinion, the opportunities of the integration of religion and  spirituality into health care?
I think that by including the spiritual dimension, health care in the medium and
long term will be transformed profoundly. Both, the relationship between patients
and health professionals as well as the approach to illness, dying and grief will be changed. Spirituality and religiosity can be important resources for ill people and their
attendants, even if it sometimes can be a stress factor too.
9. What, from your point of view, is essential to widely implement the concerns of spiritual care in practice?
It takes personal competences and systemic preconditions. Without intensive reflective engagement with fundamental issues of human life in the horizon of the great religious and spiritual traditions, it is hardly possible to provide spiritual support to people in existential situations. From the institutional and socio-political side it requires financial and organisational frameworks. This begins with the anchoring of the matter in the professional formation and in further training and extends to organisational forms of interprofessional cooperation.
10. Which of your publications do you especially recommend to read for someone who does not know you yet?
A practical introduction to Christian spirituality is found in the book “Spirit- determined Life” („Geistbestimmtes Leben“, only available in German), which was published by the Theological Publishing House of Zurich (Theologischer Verlag Zürich TVZ). Anyone interested in visionary experience and symbolic communication at the end of life, has to read two further books that will be published by de Gruyter on this topic in the coming months.

Interview by Oliver Merz
The Translation from German into English
was realized by Lars Kägi, MD.

Source: Research Institute for Spirituality and Health

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