A colleague recently raised a very relevant and poignant question, one which I think we in pastoral and spiritual care care ministry to the sick and dying have had to face and which, and in my experience, receives only marginal and very inadequate attention in divinity formation–naturally because most divinity formation is denominationally oriented–and clinical pastoral formation–because in the programs to which students are farmed out the supervisors are of one denomination supervising a variety of denominations (and generally ignorant of the philosophy, theology, tradition of most of the students’ traditions because the program is “interfaith”). There may be several reasons for the “neglect,” the first being ignorance of and opposition to alternative or conflicting traditions. Most of us have been inculcated very early in our faith formation, and certainly in the context of some agendas inherent in divinity programs, by the notion that we are the “elect” and the “others” just haven’t yet gotten it right. I personally deplore that exclusionist attitude as much as I abhor Marcionism or supercessionism. But it’s there, and what it brings to those who have occasion to be in regular contact with other faiths and traditions is the gnawing anxiety that somehow, by ministering to the “others,” we may be injuring our own faith or, as my colleague stated it, “does interfaith ministry require me to deny my own faith?” or to deny something essential to or in our own spirituality or faith life.
My response to the question was and continues to be that “interfaith” doesn’t require the minister to “deny” anything at all but invites us to participation and relationship.
This is where, I think, good formation, training, seasoned with generous life experience, helps a lot. We are most uncertain, feeling we’re on thin ice, as it were, where we are poorly prepared, unsure of our own feelings or potential responses, or where we expect we should have an answer or a fix-it. We as pastoral care providers need to give ourselves permission–as part of that self-care thing–to be uncertain, to be insecure, to ask probing questions of ourselves about what we believe and how we believe, to go dry once in a while. Every great saint (read “saint as in moral model of living” in any tradition) has experienced this.
If we have “faith” we have it. It may not always and at all times be as strong as at others and there are crests and troughs–anyone who truly believes in anything has questioned it at one time or another–and we, rather speaking for myself now, I have sometimes asked myself “What’s the use!?!” only to turn around and remember that I am creature! I am the bearer only of the message–and that message may only be one of silent presence–, the receiver has the decoding book in his/her heart that will reveal his/her Truth, the meaning.
The recent (by “recent” I mean in the past 5 decades versus the past 5 centuries) efforts and movement towards interfaith dialogue and communion/unity speak volumes to us in pastoral care, and allow us to be more open to other faiths and traditions, recognizing the shared and appreciating, respecting, tolerating the perhaps conflicting aspects. Our personal faith is al lthe richer for appreciating and accepting others’ perspectives and how what for Christians is the Holy Spirit reveals the Godhead thru those perspectives. As in the case of science and Holy Scripture there’s no conflict at all–it is only human beings who inject conflict–and here I’d like to refer to Calvin’s theory of the two books. Science and Holy Scripture complement, buttress, affirm each other as revelation. So, too, do other faiths and traditions and we as pastoral and spiritual care providers are in the unique position to tap these resources, to adopt and adapt some of them, but we must do so without anxiety for what we fear we might have to lose but anticipation at what we have to gain. This requires an open and receptive heart and mind.
And a generous dose of humility and charity wouldn’t hurt.
Finally, the interfaith symbol is a good focus for reflecting on what I’d like to call the circumincession or perichoresis of interfaith ministry; it’s a dynamic movement within and into the various faiths and traditions, denying nothing, incorporating everything.
Addendum: A collegue just commented on my posting: “You made me smile there. There is a line toward the end of the movie “The Polar Express”, where Know-it-all Boy is going on at Santa about the first gift of Christmas. Santa looks at him says “Young man, patience. And a smidgen of humility might also serve you well.” How true!
I’ve found that the Chaplains group on Linked In has some very worthwhile discussions.