Tolerance and Encouragement: Making Room for Divine Presence – instead of “Paging” Him or Her Interfaith? Multi faith? Engaging Others in Their Faiths
Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD
care, counseling, and psychotherapy
become “pastoral” – or even “theological” –
when there is “trialogue” –
when the discussion between a clinician and
a suffering, bewildered, or vulnerable soul
allows enough silence for both to
be aware of divine presence and
be open to divine insight.
Such was the view of Wayne Edward Oates, PhD (1917-1999), a fascinating chaplain who knew the works of Sigmund Freud as well as he knew the books of the Bible. The notions of “interfaith” and “multifaith” chaplaincy probably did not mean much to him. Certainly the Rev. Dr. Oates worked with those who did not share his religious tradition – yet I have trouble believing that he would have considered such care, counseling, or psychotherapy as either “interfaith” – focusing on commonalities – or “multifaith” – focusing on differing beliefs. His work with others just “was” – just was work valued by both. Whether it was the chaplain who made room or it was the patient who made room for the Deity probably did not matter much to either of them – as long as there was “trialogue” – as long as there was Divine Presence in the midst of their work.
In a nutshell, this is why I have very mixed feelings about the recent book, Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine, by sociologist Wendy Cadge, PhD. She is able to observe clinical chaplains trying quietly “to … create … sacred spaces …” in their work. She is able to observe hospital chaplains trying to assist “people at their most vulnerable” times. However, throughout the book, she somewhat scornfully rues the day that clinical pastoral chaplaincy was wooed down a bland interfaith path while she half-heartedly envisions that medically-immersed chaplaincy might embrace a multifaith approach. It is hard to be sure whether she does or does not respect professional chaplains – and one is left with the lingering suspicion that she does not. It would appear that she views professional chaplains, in their efforts toward political correctness, as having created the bureaucratic morass in which they now frequently find themselves. Furthermore, rather than respect that clinical chaplains are embedded within specific religious traditions, she would re-embed them within large (usually secular) universities having schools of medicine, theology, and public health, modeling their training and education more along the lines of that provided in nursing and social work. Only vaguely does she appear to recognize that financial issues have channeled – and still channel – the nourishment of professional chaplaincy.
Cadge’s comments reflect, unfortunately, an almost entirely “New England Brahmin” view of the world – a fact of which she appears quite unaware. There is much not to like in this book – and I cannot really recommend it – but its wrong-headedness does stir up some thoughts. The good news is that the core chapters of the book are reasonably well-written. The bad news is that the two ends of the book are not. For me, bad grammar is distracting – as is voluminous name-dropping. “ ‘Paging’ God?” I certainly hope that the Deity – whatever one calls Him or Her – does not have to put up with the generally nerve-grating squeal of a pager. The title’s mildly sacrilegious tone did bother me. It is altogether another matter, for example, in my opinion, to have the gentle tingling of bells respectfully invite and welcome Divine Presence.
Cadge’s book – intentionally or unintentionally – does end up framing the question of “interfaith chaplaincy” versus “multifaith chaplaincy” – or of the two versus “none of the above”. She chronicles the efforts, within the interfaith approach, to avoid offending anyone by emphasizing somewhat generic-content “spirituality” in contrast to emphasizing this or that specific-content religion. She also notes the rareness with which, within the multifaith approach, the beliefs and practices of different theological traditions actually are engaged.
Some might say that hospitals tend to become more “real” in the wee hours of the night, as healers and those hoping to be healed are
thinking and feeling together about
the things that matter most, …
[coming] through with
a deepened sense of fellowship and
a religious faith which …
[comes] alive for them.
Those, of course, are the words of Anton Theophilus Boisen (1876-1965), founder of the movement for professional chaplaincy. Cadge, too, suggests that, when most of the chaplains have left for the day, interfaith and multifaith concerns seem to fall by the wayside, as those of differing beliefs live out their individual religious commitments – usually with others’ tolerance and encouragement. The question remains: Has not much of professional chaplaincy, in allowing a growing emphasis on an areligious, secular, “meaning-making” notion of “spirituality,” ended up creating a clinical environment that “glosses over rather than engages religious differences”?
Making “space for one another,” as “The Covenant” of The College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy encourages, is one thing. Standing “ready to midwife one another in our respective spiritual journeys” – as it also encourages – is a bit harder – and something else. Can clinical pastoral chaplaincy move beyond “interfaith” and “multifaith” toward actual engagement of our brothers’ and sisters’ faiths – back, truly, to Boisen’s “thinking and feeling together about the things that matter most”?
The following are the bibliographic details of the cited items:
The reference in the opening highlighted comment and in the first paragraph is to
Wayne Edward Oates, The Presence of God in Pastoral Counseling (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1986). See also, Robert Charles Powell. “Calling Wayne Oates! Southern Baptist Theologues Need You! Letter to the Editor of the Pastoral Report.” 24 Feb 2005.
The reference in the second paragraph is to Wendy Cadge, Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012); the specific citations are to pages 76 and 201.
The highlighted comment in the fifth paragraph is from Anton Theophilus Boisen, Out of the Depths: Autobiographical Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), pages 179-180. The Cadge citation at the very end of the paragraph is from page 196 of her book.
“The Covenant” can be found at http://cpspoffice.org/covenant.html .
See also, Robert Charles Powell, “Religion in Crisis and Custom: Formation and Transformation – Discovery and Recovery – of Spirit and Soul.”
http://www.icpcc.net/ [click on “Materials”];
(translated  by Chaplains Rafael Hiraldo Román & Jesús Rodríguez Sánchez, with the assistance of Chaplain R. Esteban Montilla, as “Religión en Crisis y en Costumbre: Formación y Transformación - Descubrimiento y Recuperación - de Espíritu y Alma”;
Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD is the leading historian of the clinical pastoral movement. Many of his published writings are posted on the Pastoral Report. Readers can use the PR's search engine found on the left side-bar to locate his articles. As a practicing psychiatrist, his writings reflect his daily investment in his clinical practice of providing psychotherapy and care to his patients. Contact Dr. Powell by clicking here.