God Around the Edges?
Moral Frameworks in Times of Crisis

This book project asks who chaplains are and what scholars can learn about how people make sense of suffering by analyzing their daily work. I start with the awareness that congregational membership is slowly declining in the United States while the existential issues we face are not. Individuals who encounter a theologically or religiously trained person in the midst of crisis are increasingly likely to meet a chaplain in an emergency room, workplace, or disaster setting rather than a local religious leader with whom they previously had a relationship. These chaplains have long been there but sociologists and religious studies scholars have tended not to see them or to ask questions about their professional mandates, organizational support, and work at the edge of religious and more public organizations.

This book is built around two questions. First I ask where chaplains are institutionally and what factors lead them to be in some sectors and institutions but not others in the city of Boston. Through interviews, newspapers and historical sources, I create an institutional map to situate chaplains historically and sociologically and point to demographic, historical and religious factors that shape their work and institutional positions. Second, I ask how chaplains and the people with whom they work in the Boston area make sense of the existential and moral issues they confront in their interactions with one another and where religious ideas, beliefs and / or practices are in that process. I use the term theodicy, as Max Weber did, to describe the analytic frames – whether religious or more secular – through which chaplains and the individuals with whom they work make sense of suffering and imbue it with meaning. I analyze the explanations and practices chaplains develop around suffering, resilience, hope and other aspects of personal experience paying close attention to the logics that underlie and surround these explanations.

This project is supported by a Senior Faculty Research Leave from Brandeis University, a Jack Shand Research Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Theodore and Jane Fund for Faculty Research and Creative Projects at Brandeis University.

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