When our Christian Science chaplain left the interfaith body at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island about nine years ago, my church wanted me to step in. I was happy to accept, since I’d served in another interfaith group. To me, interfaith work is a kind of spiritual journey, and this new phase in my life has presented a wonderful opportunity for education in interfaith listening and dialogue, for compassion and understanding.
Like many universities today, this one is a secular institution, which, unlike most, includes a chaplaincy body under a student services administration that provides half the funding. The university evidently sees chaplains as providing an essential service, much like its student counseling service, with which we occasionally collaborate.
Our “Memorandum of Understanding” with the university states that chaplains are “to work as a team to provide a model of interfaith cooperation and respect, and to give more efficient service than is possible individually.” Sure, we each work with our own faith group on campus, but we also get together for team meetings and to organize multifaith activities.
Joining this multifaith team was a bit intimidating at first because of the other chaplains’ academic and religious credentials and their extensive campus activities. At one point, I felt I couldn’t justify my presence on the team because there were few Christian Scientists on campus, and they kept a fairly low profile. But gradually I became more involved as I realized I had valuable perspectives and insights to add to the conversation. Not only could I contribute in meaningful ways, I could also dispel myths and misunderstandings about Christian Science. I’ve found that it’s all a matter of letting one’s light shine and knowing that one is not personally responsible for that light—God is. When we try to force the light, we fail to connect with others and may come across as arrogant know-it-alls.
To me, interfaith work is a kind of spiritual journey.
The guidelines for dialogue in multifaith services counsel us to assume the essential goodness of the other individual or group, to relate with respect, to speak only from our own faith tradition, to suspend assumptions and judgments, to focus on inquiry and reflection, and to release the need for an outcome. Also—implicit in this—we don’t proselytize.
In relating to others on a multifaith team, you learn to respect the individuals and their traditions. This leads to rapport and cooperation, and then to appreciation. Whether conversing with Buddhists, Bahais, Muslims, Jews, or the various Christian faiths, I try to approach each encounter with love, realizing that we all have one Father-Mother God, one Mind, regardless of our national, cultural, or religious backgrounds. This allows me to understand more clearly the various terms and concepts of other faiths, and to draw appropriate parallels with Christian Science. When I speak, I listen for what I am to say so that the listener can understand the thought I’m trying to convey.
Over the years I’ve had many opportunities for multifaith dialogue. It’s occurred when a student has dropped into my office, or when I’ve given an invocation at a convocation ceremony, or when I co-moderated an Interfaith Student Council with our Bahai chaplain. The dialogue has occurred at team meetings and social occasions, at our “Sessions in Spirituality” events, and in some university courses. Recently, I spoke to a class in an addictive behaviors course, and served as a resource person for an online palliative nursing course. I contributed to dialogue about nursing concerns on a variety of topics.
The chaplaincy’s “Sessions in Spirituality” has been an especially interesting faith-dialogue forum. Taking on different forms and themes over the years, it has involved speakers and participants who have brought their religion or spirituality to bear on some aspect of life. This year, compassion has been our theme. While we were exploring this concept during informal lunchtime discussions, some interesting ideas came to my thought.
Jesus showed how we can relate gently, yet meaningfully, with others of different religions and perceptions.
One was that compassion, unlike empathy, demands action. Another, that it’s a bridge-builder. It requires that we see where others are in life, and then tailor our words and actions to their mental standpoint so we can build dialogue from it. It’s really akin to how Jesus interacted with his listeners. To reach his diverse audience, he illustrated his ideas with parables and actions, designed to raise the thought of his listeners. Jesus showed how we can relate gently, yet meaningfully, with others of different religions and perceptions.
And of course, the underlying element of such interaction and dialogue is love. It’s love accompanied by intuition, humility, and respect. If we meet people where they are, we can help them see where we are and perhaps “give them a cup of cold water in Christ’s name,” as Mary Baker Eddy puts it in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (p. 570).
In our talks about compassion I’ve come to realize that in its highest form, it heals. It’s not just about recognizing where people are humanly but where they are spiritually, as God’s ideas. Jesus healed so quickly and effectively because he so fully comprehended the spiritual nature of those who sought his help. He was seeing them clearly through the eyes of divine Love.
An increasing understanding of our spiritual relationship with God and with others enables us to have an increasingly meaningful and productive dialogue and interaction with them. Such dialogue promotes understanding among peoples of faith, regardless of their religious outlook.
John Park is a Christian Science practitioner in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.