Confessions of a Relativist

Paul R. Fleischman describes calling as “a pinhole through which a person can glimpse the other religious dimensions of life.”[1]  Not a portal; not a bay window; a “pinhole to dampen the diffusion of light, so the whole heavens can be clearly seen.”

            The question of how deeply connected a chaplain must be to a specific faith community has been well discussed in recent times.  I must confess that I am among those whose spiritual direction has been more eclectic in the last decade.  Probably, truth be told, I would likely qualify as one of those quasi thinkers who can more adequately be described as spiritual than religious.  I have done the dogmatic route, from my early Roman Catholic upbringing to my conservative evangelical conversion, and now find myself in that uncomfortable predicament of being comfortably relativistic.  There, I have said it.  I am a relativist.  I have trouble with dogma.  I can accept narrow definitions of truth as being necessary for some (or even most), and as a way of ensuring the survival of specific religious groups, but not for me.

Somewhere along the line I simply gained an appreciation for the perspectives of others.  By some strange magic that I cannot fully explain, I can remain connected to my Christian beliefs while being warmly inspired by the Eight-fold Path of Buddhism, or the myths and stories of Aboriginal spirituality.  I am not bothered by the literal contradictions, or the fact that one cannot call Jesus the “Way, the Truth and the Life” and accept the existence of other ways and truths as equally valid.  I don’t care about the incongruity of my eclecticism. I am where I am.

Perhaps it is that expanding view of truth that makes Fleischman’s observation so meaningful for me.  Through the broad window of dogma, I was able to see clearly what my own religious influences had taught me to see.  As my confidence in my ability to see clearly diminished to the point where a “pinhole” offered the only available light, a universe opened up in panoramic possibility.

Admittedly, there is a fine line between relativism and agnosticism.  In my own thinking I can clearly see the elevation of doubt to the status of virtue.  Imbedded in my personal doubts are the seeds of humility that have filed off the edges of my former, almost arrogant, triumphalism.  In the process of deconstructing my certainties and replacing them with the awe of wonder, I have experienced the reawakening of curiosity that has made every story, every life I encounter in my ministry, interesting.

In all likelihood, I am no longer well suited to the role of Christian  pastor if that means pointing all people in one narrow direction.  I have probably seen the last of congregational ministry.  But in the world of institutional ministry where multifaith realities abound, and where I have been described by the floggers of religious certainty as a “pseudo social worker,” “pseudo psychologist,” and other less flattering descriptions. I believe I bring that critical element that is the bedrock of multifaith ministry: respect for the beliefs of others.

My mantra as a multifaith practitioner has been to, “meet people where they are and walk with them”—not to drag them to that better place I have imagined, or to those particular ideas that I find personally meaningful, but to that place in them where mystery meets faith and finds solid ground on which to stand; and most importantly, hope.  If that places me outside the scope of acceptability in the eyes of my Christian peers, then so be it.  In the crucible of actual ministry, I have seen the results in the lives of ones with whom I have walked, relativist that I am.  And I can live with it.

[1] Fleischman, Paul, The Healing Spirit, Chapter 4, Paragon House, New York, 1990, p. 76.

Lancet Fluke Religion

What we are today comes from our thoughts of
yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow:  Our life is the creation of our mind.

  The Dhammapada

It has been difficult for many westerners to understand the reaction of conservative Muslims to the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad in unflattering ways.  No easier to understand is how some Christian pro-life proponents defend those who kill
abortionists, or who blow up abortion clinics.  One writer in a recent New York Times article suggested that some religious folk are like ants whose brains have been taken over by the lancet fluke–a parasite that infects ants’ brains and causes them to climb a blade of
grass over and over again until they can be eaten by grazing sheep or
cows.  Once thusly consumed, they can flourish in the stomachs and intestinal tracks of their hosts and reproduce.  (It is the mindless climbing behavior that is being flagged as similar to people that follow religious ideas, coupled with this overwhelming need to reproduce other mindless climbers.)

A rather dismal view of religious thought, wouldn’t you agree?  But when you consider the crazy things people have done in the name of religion, it does stand to reason that some opponents would think that many religious adherents have lost their executive functions to ideological parasites that cause them to do stupid things.  Let’s give Freud partial credit for being partly right.  Some religious thought qualifies as delusional and can reside in people who appear quite well organized otherwise.  How else would starry-eyed professionals in tennis shoes wind up dead on the floor in hopes of hopping the Hail Bob Comet to celestial glory?

I guess it all depends on which religious thoughts a person chooses to accent.  For instance, the prophet Muhammad said that believers should “wish for others what they wish for themselves,” a thought that has often been compared to Christ’s admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That’s a worthy religious concept for human beings to entertain and live.  I could
see both the Danish cartoonists and the Islamic reactionaries being indicted by that thought.  For the most part, that is what religions seek to promote: tolerance, respect, and mutual well-being.  Most Muslims do not condone the killing of insensitive cartoonists who believe freedom of speech to be a license to communicate stupidity.  Most Christians do not condone the killing of those who perform abortions.  Most good people of faith wonder where these other people come from!

Perhaps if there is a lesson in the existence of such extremists, it can be found in the quote above.  People are where they are today because of what they have thought yesterday; and what they are presently thinking will take them somewhere tomorrow.  That being
the case, doesn’t it make real sense to be careful what thoughts you
entertain?  At some point along the line, the accountants and teachers and normal folk who bought into the Hail Bob fiasco
saw the idea for the “three bars short of a concerto” sham that it was.  At some point, if they had just stopped to do a reality inventory, or checked with someone, anyone, who had not ingested a lancet fluke, they might just be alive today.

There is a difference between healthy faith, which is virtue based, life affirming, and mind expanding, and unhealthy faith, which is selfish, identity denying, and creativity suppressing.  Before you decide to hop on any guru’s blade of grass, examine the sacred cow that is waiting to eat you.  Lancet fluke religion always has a
shitty outcome.

Glenn A. Robitaille