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.

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