An annual symposium convening scholars and practitioners

Pharmaceuticals have emerged as a powerful force within modern culture, where they are taken to relieve human suffering, to modify human vulnerability, and to moderate risk of future adverse events.

Many instances of pharmaceutical use fit well within standard medical narratives of disease and treatment, and are appropriate and uncontroversial. But in other instances, it is less clear that medications are being used to treat “disease.” Critics have even charged that in some cases diagnostic categories have been designed and publicized to fit (and to sell) a certain drug, and not the other way around.

Pharmaceutical use raises important theological and philosophical questions.  For example, how do pharmaceuticals change our relationship to our bodies? How do humans understand the body’s finitude and contingency in a world filled with colorful pharmaceutical ads, which depict (pharmacologically-modified) bodies in particular, glorified ways? How do pharmaceuticals shape our understanding of suffering and illness? How do they change our practices and expectations regarding care for the body in maintaining health?

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With the generous support of the McDonald Agape Foundation, we will convene a series of five annual conferences that address these important theological, philosophical, and clinical questions.

Questioning preventive medicine: Is a pound of prevention worth an ounce of cure?

May 17th, 2022
1:00pm – 7:30pm

Register by Friday, May 13th, 2022
Cost: $20 public, Free for Duke faculty, staff, and students


Click here for the agenda
Click here for speaker bios

Everyone knows that it is better to prevent an illness than to treat it once it has occurred. In accord with this maxim, medicine offers innumerable strategies to reduce a person’s risk of future disease and its complications. Many of these strategies involve taking medications. Think of medications for elevated blood pressure, glucose intolerance, low bone density, depression, and high cholesterol, just to name a few. But what if these strategies, all things considered, are not good medicine? What if medicalizing risk too oCften hinders rather than promotes human flourishing?

This symposium will consider critically the medicalization of risk. Presenters will ask whether medical risk-management strategies are sufficiently justified by the scientific evidence and sufficiently likely to prevent illness rather than cause it. They will consider how medicalizing risk may distort the practice of medicine and the clinician-patient relationship, and how this distortion may have particularly problematic consequences for underserved communities. In dialogue with several distinguished Duke faculty, participants will seek to discern how preventive medicine can serve rather than frustrate the goals of medicine and the good of patients.

“Do not be anxious about your body:” How is medical management of risks to future health compatible with Christian discipleship?

Due to COVID-19 Closures, the 2020 Out of Meds Conference was cancelled. The public lecture originally scheduled for April 2nd, entitled “Saved by Grace Through Pharma? Medicine, the Gospel, and the Quest for Eternal Life” with Kavin Rowe and Bradley Gregory was later held as a TMC Virtual Seminar on February 24th, 2021. The recording for that seminar can be found here.

Information about the originally planned event:
On April 2nd, 2020, at 5:15pm in the Duke South Amphitheater, we will hold a public lecture entitled, “Saved by Grace through Pharma? Medicine, the Gospel, and the Quest for Eternal Life.” Kavin Rowe, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, and Bradley Gregory, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America will be speaking. The conversation will be moderated by Farr Curlin, MD, Professor of Medical Humanities at Duke Divinity School. See the event website for details.

Description of the originally planned 2020 Conference:
This fourth conference of the collaboration will venture beyond psychiatry into broader theological engagement of the use of pharmaceuticals for risk reduction.  Drawing on scripture and Christian tradition, we will ask:  How do we live into the truth that God cares for us and for our bodies in the face of anxiety about risk of future disease, death, or disability?  How might such medicalized anxiety respond to the truth that we do not have the power to secure our future?  How does it enable or hinder us from serving the God who gives us our bodies and their health?

We will ask what it might look like for patients and clinicians to apply the exhortation to seek first the is kingdom of God, and to not be anxious about tomorrow. We will ask what it might look like for medicine to respect Jesus’s maxim:  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

“But I am Afflicted”: Attending to Persons in Pain in Light of the Opioid Crisis

March 28, 2019

The third conference of the collaboration considers the contemporary opioid crisis through a theological lens in order to develop faithful and fitting resources for both churches and healthcare practitioners.

The conference aims to gather theologians and healthcare practitioners to address a moral question: In light of the opioid crisis, how should clinicians, pastors, and support networks of friends and family respond to those who suffer pain? This is no easy question, as the opioid crisis has complex theological, philosophical, socioeconomic, and institutional roots.  By considering our approach to pain in a theological context, we can better understand the multifaceted nature of the opioid crisis and develop fitting responses.

To that end, we also aim to generate new resources that help clergy and clinicians overcome barriers preventing them from uniting to address the opioid epidemic. The project will produce scholarly manuscripts and other resources to aid clinicians, clergy, and congregants as they seek to coordinate their support of those in pain. Not merely clinical primers, these resources will be oriented toward helping practitioners address the pressing moral question: In light of the opioid epidemic, how should I respond to my neighbor (my congregant, my patient, my friend) who is experiencing pain?

Plenary Speakers

Ellen Davis, PhD, Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School; Farr A. Curlin, MD, the Josiah C. Trent Professor of Medical Humanities and Co-Director of the Theology, Medicine and Culture Initiative at Duke Divinity School; John Swinton, PhD, RMN, RNMD, Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care, King’s College, University of Aberdeen; Eleonore Stump, PhD, The Robert J. Henle, SJ, Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University; Brett McCarty, Th.D., St. Andrews Fellow in Theology and Science at Duke Divinity School; Joel Shuman, PhD, Professor of Theology at King’s College

Link to 2019 Schedule of Events


June 8-9, 2018
Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Rubenstein Library
Duke University

How and why do psychiatric medications “work?” Often, this question is answered only by describing medications’ chemical effects. But clinicians need also to attend to medication’s broader contexts: to the influence of gender, race, culture, and spirituality; to the therapeutic relationships in which medications are prescribed and taken; to the way that clinical success is defined; and to the stories that people tell themselves and others about medication. All of these matter for how medications “work.” Join us as we consider medications within these broader contexts, and consider how they might shape wise practices of prescribing and wise institutional policies.

Taking Our Meds Faithfully?  Christian Engagements with Psychiatric Medication

March 3-4, 2017 

How might Christian thought and practice inform the way that psychiatric medications are prescribed and consumed?

Pharmaceutical prescribing is itself widely varied in different disciplines and clinical contexts, and must be addressed with credibility and precision.  We begin the series by examining the particular and controversial context of psychiatric medication prescribing.  Despite the many questions surrounding the use of psychiatric medication, very few scholars have engaged this theologically.  Furthermore, psychiatrists and (especially) primary care physicians have very few published resources, apart from medical texts that wholly embrace medical narratives, to guide their prudential use of psychiatric medications.

In this conference, titled “Taking Our Meds Faithfully?  Christian Engagements with Psychiatric Medication,” we ask two primary questions.  First, how can Christians understand the relation of the body, the person, and agency in a way that informs appropriate use of psychiatric medication, avoiding both reductionism and unhelpful forms of dualism?  Second, what are the theological and moral goods toward which psychiatric prescribing should be directed, and what are its roles and limits?

 Link to 2017 Schedule of Events

Click here for video from the 2017 conference