How Do You Think About Other Religions? (Dialogical Essay)

Religions LogoI  am a chaplain in a hospital, where being sensitive and attentive to the religious faith (or lack thereof) of our patients is intrinsic to the chaplain’s pastoral identity and functioning.  Chaplains have an obligation to provide patient-centered pastoral care, without imposing their faith system on the patient. Institutional chaplains have no right to share their faith with a patient unless they are explicitly asked.   So far, so good, right?  Well, it may not be that simple.

As I continue to develop myself for the very specialized ministry of professional chaplaincy, and in light of the public confusion surrounding what a chaplain can or cannot share with a pastoral care recipient, I believe it is important to define (and/or clarify) some of the terms often used by chaplains and other experts in the field of chaplaincy which can express how one understands those who hold different beliefs than the chaplain providing pastoral care.

Disclaimers: What I am writing here is not authoritative, but explorative (my new catch phrase). This reflection is meant to spark dialogue, and, hopefully, to increase awareness and sensitivity.  Additionally, I may have, with no intended malice, expressed personal understandings, which may not be in agreement with the tenets or values of the hospital in which I minister or the denomination that endorses me for chaplaincy.  Please grant me grace, in advance. This topic can be seen as very contentious.  (To be transparent, I should reveal to you that my personal faith centers on my belief that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical human being, who was really killed on a cross, and who physically rose from the dead).

So how do I understand how chaplains think about religions other than their own? There are four generally understood approaches or constructs to viewing other religions: (a) Pluralism, (b) Exclusivism, (c) Inclusivism, and, (d) Universalism. I will not make any judgments upon any of these constructs, other than to briefly comment on the construct’s possible ministry application in an institutional setting.  Thus, what I provide is several constructs laid out simply so that the reader might have a taxonomy to reflect upon themselves. (I have also included a chart at the end of the reflection).

Pluralism: The term pluralism as it applies to the work of chaplaincy is a pregnant word.  It needs to be defined and unpacked (as do the others) because it is often misinterpreted and misapplied.  For the purposes of this discussion, and specifically for chaplaincy, I define pluralism as the belief that all Gods and/or religious faith systems are equally true and valid. One can find ‘salvation’ in any of the faith systems a person may choose.   Self-described pluralist chaplains always affirm the validity of the faith system of the pastoral care recipient as true and good.  Pluralist chaplains, because of their open religious stance, may have a great capacity to minister to an unlimited range of religious beliefs.  They, also, usually have a developed desire to understand other religious beliefs and practices.

Exclusivism: Exclusivist chaplains believe that the God of their own faith tradition is the only God who can save anyone.  The exclusivist chaplain’s religion and/or God is the only true and valid religion and/or God.  All other religions are false religions and all other gods are false gods.  There really isn’t anything that can be learned from other religions, because the exclusivist’s religion has the fullness of truth.  Though I would not say it is impossible to be an exclusivist in the chaplaincy, it may be difficult ministering hope to pastoral care recipients of other religions, especially those who are dying, unless they have a religious conversion to the exclusivist chaplain’s God and/or religion.

Inclusivism: Inclusivist chaplains believe wholeheartedly that the God of their religion is the God who can and desires to be in a relationship with and save all people.   Inclusivists believe that, through no fault their own, members of other religions, who never accept the God or the religion of the inclusivists religion, may yet still be the beneficiaries of salvation through the God or religion of the inclusivist chaplain. Inclusivists chaplains believe that all truth is God’s truth, and can find a lot to be gained in the study of other religions.  Inclusivists may have an open stance towards other religions, but they hold that their own religious system, though not superior to others, nonetheless, is the most fully true and valid religious system.

Universalism: Universalist chaplains may not have any religion at all.  They may simply believe in a spiritual reality that is fundamentally mysterious.  They believe that because all people have souls (or spirits), and that all people were created good, then the good souls (spirits) of all people will be saved.  Universalists believe that it is imperative to study other religions in order that they can gain as much insight into the universal spirit that permeates all things at all times. The universalist chaplain, because of their wide-open stance, should have no issues ministering to people of any faith.  However, universalist chaplains may find that some pastoral care recipients who may be exclusivist are resistant to their pastoral care.  Those pastoral care recipients may want a chaplain who can speak to them more concretely about their particular faith system.

Of course, these constructs are just a simple sketch of these various systems. But I do believe they may function as a starting point for dialogue and further study for chaplains.  I hope I have not imposed my own beliefs too much in these descriptions.  Nevertheless, in light of the potentially polemical nature of this topic, I believe we can use these definitions as a starting point for this discussion.  (Sidebar: I used to believe I wanted to be a scholar, but I realized that I don’t have the patience for scholarship.  I do hope I can be an articulate thinker, but I still see theology more as a canvas to paint or a poem to compose).

Where do I stand? I am an Inclusivist. And as an inclusivist I want to reaffirm everything I wrote in the first paragraph of this reflection: I am a chaplain in a hospital, where being sensitive and attentive to the religious faith (or lack thereof) of my patients is intrinsic to my pastoral identity and functioning.  I provide patient-centered pastoral care, without imposing my faith system on the patient. I, as a chaplain never share my faith with a patient unless they explicitly ask me to.   Thus, I can naturally and joyfully perform all of my chaplain duties as an Inclusivist.

One last note, sadly I have read a lot lately in the field and in the media touting Pluralism or Universalism as the only constructs that can be fully justified as a basis for chaplaincy.  To that I would say, “That would violate the very tenets of those two constructs.”  If a chaplain is patient-centered, if he or she is affirming of the intrinsic dignity of all human beings, then I believe any of the constructs can be held as a basis for excellent pastoral care.

How Do You Think About Other Religions

© 2015, Rev. Fr. Paul Dordal, D.Min., B.C.C.


2 thoughts on “How Do You Think About Other Religions? (Dialogical Essay)

  1. Krista March 14, 2015 / 1:12 am

    I also would consider myself an inclusivist, with the clarification that for the “How are people saved” block I might say: Believes people are saved by belief in the inclusivist’s particular God, although the inclusivist maintains a humility that God is so much bigger than the human mind that it is not the inclusivist’s place to stipulate who is ‘in.’


  2. Paul Dordal March 14, 2015 / 1:15 pm

    Thanks Krista; great comment! I am going to update my chart/article to reflect that idea of humble mystery.


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