Chaplaincy is not about conversion, rather it is about deepening the faith of the patient, using their faith as a resource.
I first encountered this idea as a part of my chaplaincy training, then began to live it in a pluralistic context as a Buddhist ministering to folks who were predominantly Abrahamic in orientation. My subsequent interfaith experiences as chaplain, spiritual guide, and therapist have all approached spirituality not just as belief set, but as practices that become vehicles for wellbeing.
This focus on praxis rather than belief is a direct result of my work as a chaplain. In divinity school, prior to working as a chaplain, I was drawn to the unfathomable aspects of Buddhism. I loved the twists and turns of madhyamakan logic and kōan practice, I strove to understand śūnyatā (emptiness), and loved debates about whether or not tathāgatagarbha (Buddha-nature) is empty of self or possessing of self.
Chaplaincy changed all of that. It opened up my spirituality and simplified my theological interests. During my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I talked with people as they faced cancer, confronted the loss of memory and self to dementia, and sat with others as they or their loved ones died. A big part of my job was helping these people wrestle with the emotions that accompany all of these things.
These encounters changed what mattered to me theologically. Understanding Buddha-nature would be nice, but –for me– those mysteries began to pale in comparison to teachings about the first noble truth (suffering, old age, sickness, and death) and the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, and non-self). Even this language is too dressed up.
It doesn’t matter how the Buddha suffered, or what he had to say about it 2500 years ago. What matters to me is how you are suffering. Will you tell me about it? I’m curious, how do you cope? Simple questions like these, and the discussions they unlocked, have taught me as much or more about suffering, love, hope, and real wisdom, as any of the books I read in grad school.
The majority of the folks I’ve worked with have been Christian, and most thought I was a Christian minister from a denomination a step or two away from their own. Most people are looking for meaning. How could God let this happen? How can I even begin to pray when my life, my body, is falling to pieces?
I don’t know. I don’t know your life better than you do, and I cannot begin to imagine God’s will in this situation.
Not knowing is important. It is honest. Honest truths, expressed simply, have a way of inviting people to drop into themselves, to unclench around the pain and uncertainty they are experiencing. Conversely, I have found that easy answers and reassurances about God’s plan and mysterious ways seldom bring comfort.
Comfort is important, but how it is arrived at matters even more.
Some people can’t be angry with God. They feel they have to be happy and cheerful when praying. Some folks think it is sacrilegious, or feel like it’s not their place to question God. But, for people who are open to it, the practice can release a lot of pent up energy. I tend to sidle up to the idea of arguing with God: It sounds like you’re really angry with God. Did you know there is a whole section of the Bible, Lamentations, devoted to yelling at Him? God can take your anger; God is big enough to hold it. Would you like me to yell at God with you? Would you like me to ask Him why this is happening or to ask for His support?
Whenever possible, I try to listen for the kernels of truth that can be hidden within what people say and pray for: grief, desire for reconciliation, fear of death. I try to comment on these things and to see if there is a need for deeper listening, or a desire for some kind of resolution. Sometimes resolution is coaching folks through the process of reaching out to estranged loved ones. Sometimes it is helping to plan a funeral or construct a grief ritual. While the details often vary, the process fairly consistently involves helping people take up the language, tools, and symbols of their faith to create meaningful spiritual experiences for themselves.
Many of the people I’ve worked with don’t fit into traditional religious categories. When someone tells me they identify as both Buddhist and Christian, I don’t ask them to choose between paths, or automatically assume they are cherry picking from each tradition in a form of spiritual materialism. Instead I inquire and listen. What are the driving issues of your life right now? What are the challenges? How do you listen for the Holy? What is coming up in your sitting practice? Are there Bible verses that are particularly relevant to you recently?
I have prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses; I have prayed in Jesus’ name. I have read psalms and sung hymns. I have done these things, and felt no hypocrisy, shame, or inauthenticity, despite the fact that I do not worship the Abrahamic God. Each of these actions makes sense from the participatory and pluralistic paradigms I work in.
Pluralism is a response to religious and spiritual diversity. Pluralism views each tradition equally, not because they all say the same thing or lead to the same afterlife. Instead pluralism celebrates difference, acknowledging that all religions study the human experience and relationship to the sacred. This approach recognizes that seeking understanding across difference adds more to the sum of human knowledge and wisdom than fighting over claims on absolute truth.
Participatory spirituality builds on a pluralistic framework by embracing many modes of religious engagement. Traditional approaches to religion focus on the interactions between language and belief; participatory spirituality includes non-verbal modes of practice as well (e.g., somatic, contemplative, and creative). In this model it makes sense to explore how our bodies pray, how the Goddess reveals Herself through art, how dance contributes to the wholeness of God, or how stillness and silence enhance wisdom.
The participatory model fits within the pluralistic framework in that it asserts that no single pregiven ultimate reality exists. Instead, it proposes that religious activity cocreates and enacts the various ultimates described by the world’s wisdom traditions. In this way certain elements of process theology can also be seen within the paradigm.
This model of interfaith work inverts the “one mountain, many paths” religious analogy, and instead looks at religious activity as an ocean with many shores. The ultimate realities described by the various religions are shores arrived at through the combined efforts of the individual practitioner and the efforts of their community of faith. These ultimates are expanded as those traditions evolve in relation to themselves, their adherents, and the increasingly diverse religious landscape.
Why do these paradigms matter? These models bridge the gap between the academic study of religion and the lived experience of spirituality. They describe the ways we resacrilize our complex postmodern world, by including community, the body, and devotional (rather than analytic) approaches to faith without abandoning the insights gained from deconstruction, critical theory, feminist theory, and so on. They help us move beyond territorial disputes about ultimate truth without disparaging the traditions or practitioners that seek those truths.
This flexibility makes them well suited for interfaith work, as well as for work with people whose spiritualities don’t fit into traditional religious categories. On a practical level, these models help me bracket my own spiritual background and allow me to enthusiastically join with the people I’m working with to create experiences that will nourish their spirits.
[Note: For those interested in reading more about the interfaith paradigms I described, please see Diana Eck’s work on pluralism and Jorge Ferrer’s writing on participatory spirituality.]
David Christy, M.Div. is an interfaith chaplain, spiritual guide, and meditation instructor. He has been a Zen practitioner for 15 years, and studied earth-based spiritualities for over a decade. His specialties include mindfulness, group process, ritual facilitation, and dream work. David is currently pursuing a doctorate in pastoral counseling at Loyola University. His blog posts, though few and far between, can be found at https://dmchristy.wordpress.com