I have spent several years in the company of one of pastoral theology’s most eminent practitioner theologians. My companion has been Swiss Pastoral Theologian Eduard Thurneysen while studying his theory and practice of soul care which took the form of a soul conversation. This blog post is the first of several occasional posts where I will share some valuable insights gained from my time in Thureysen’s company.
Thurneysen (1888-1974) was a minister in the Swiss Reformed denomination at the Minister in the Swiss city of Basel for over 30 years together. During this time, he also lectured in Pastoral Theology at Basel University. The emphasis in his ministry was pastoral care to his Basel parishioners combined with training theological students.
Thurneysen understood the ministry of the Word of God to be a multifaceted ministry that, alongside preaching, teaching, and administration of the sacraments, included a conversational ministry with parishioners and community members. He called his conversational ministry soul care. For Thurneysen, soul care was a ministry that belonged to all Christians. Still, he believed those set apart for ministry – ministers – had a particular obligation to cultivate the attitudes and skills needed for the ministry of soul care.
For Thurneysen, the ministry of soul care centred around understanding the nature of communication, speech and conversation. The centrality of the conversation was based on several theological principles, the first being that God himself is a communicating God who speaks through his Word. Secondly, the human ability to communicate and converse reflects God’s image and nature, and it is speech that breaks our human isolation and brings us into fellowship with others. Thirdly, speech is the human vehicle that conveys the revelation of God, where the Spirit of God is at work in the souls of both the speaker and the hearer. The proclamation of God was central to Thurneysen’s theology. However, he was careful to distinguish the soul conversation from attempts at evangelism or proselytisation that did not connect, or co-opted the conversation to the speaker’s own ends, such could not be considered a soul conversation. Indeed, if we were to regard him as someone who reduced pastoral conversations to what might be called evangelism, much of his nuance has been lost, and we would be somewhat mistaken.
In Thureneysen’s thought, speech was the primary conduit of the communication between souls, which happened through the interchange of conversation. Thurneysen drew upon the biblical witness to conversation and the expressive importance of speech and the art of conversation as exemplified by Jesus in the Gospel, of which the conversation with Nicodemus is a salient example. As an art, conversation is more that simply two people speaking together. Instead, it is a cooperative sharing and exploration of thought, enabling two souls to move into a sympathetic rhythm with each other. Furthermore, there is a communal dimension to this form of conversation. It is the co-creative sharing and exploring of ideas, emotions and thoughts, requiring the help of other people, which leads to realisations that otherwise would not be available.
Such a conversation was more than simply words or speech; it was a deep level of embodied communication and connection. Such communication includes speaking and hearing but has other senses. It included perceptions and intuitions drawn from what is seen and felt, in the form of gestures, breath, falling into step together, mirroring, modulation, and tone of voice, and the ability to hear both that which is said and that which is left unsaid.
From the perspective of the soul carer, the conversation is entered into prayerfully and attends to the other person with their whole attention, attempting to catch their full meaning and perceiving what was on their hearts. There is a deep acceptance of the humanity of the other and a genuine interest in them and their world. Yet, the carer maintains a level of differentiation, neither merging with them nor presuming to know their thoughts. In a soul conversation, matters of concern become a little different when given voice. A good conversationalist helps the other figure out what they mean by helping them explore, reflect and enquire. The soul carer holds conversation under the universal and eternal truths within the love of God. Any observation or comment is made in the best interests of the other person. A comment arises from that which has been spoken of without minimising, denying or catastrophising the events. If the other has spoken of dire circumstances, it might be that a soul carer observes gently, “It sounds like you are walking through the valley or the shadow of death.”