It is Friday morning, late in winter quarter: the last day of pastoral care course for the second-year MDiv class. Students gather around large classroom table strewn with notebooks, laptops, water bottles, coffee cups. One of them has brought freshly baked blackberry scones, her latest culinary achievement; the rest of us admire her skill and are grateful for her generosity. The contented sounds of eating together and the comfortable banter around the table lend the room a familial air. Indeed, for this MDiv cohort—a dozen students from a wide range of denominations and faith traditions who are formed for religious leadership over three years of conversation with one another—“family”, with all the complexity that word implies—is an apt description.
The final topic for this introductory course in care and counseling is, not surprisingly, death and dying. What is death? How do human beings experience the deaths of others? What have our families and communities taught us about death? What stories do our faith traditions tell about death, and why? There is a slight pause, as students shift their attention from the pleasures of breakfast to the mysteries of being and non-being, but remarkably quickly, the conversation becomes both deep and wide. White mainline Protestants recall stoic grandparents who held that death was “just a part of life, to be endured like all the rest.” Several students nod their heads in agreement; someone cites Ecclesiastes’ seasons, “a time to be born, and a time to die.” The Buddhists in the group stretch this idea even further—their practice of meditation, and the sense of detachment it fosters, is preparation for that last “letting go.” Not only is death part of life, they observe, but our lives should prepare us for our deaths.
A student from Nepal, recalling a childhood that mingled Hindu and Buddhist rituals, describes caring for dying family members at home and preparing them for their journey into another life—his is still another rendition of the life/death relationship. He delights his classmates when he recounts wondering as a child what he might experience in his own next life—would he be a tree? a lizard? a lion? He concludes that in his tradition, death is not final: “death is not a period; it is simply a comma.” At this pronouncement, the far end of the table comes alive. African American Baptists and Pentecostals—surprising themselves, as well as their colleagues, nod in recognition. One of these men reminds his co-religionists that in their faith communities, “when someone dies, we say that they have ‘passed,’ or that they have ‘transitioned’. We believe that death is a comma, too!”
It is not every day that Pentecostals from the south side of Chicago and Hindu/Buddhists from Nepal encounter something of their deepest hopes and fears in each other’s stories and practices. But during the last five years, since the MDiv program at the Divinity School has welcomed enrollment by students from a wide variety of religious traditions, conversations like this one are more frequent. The decision to become a multi-religious program was practical, not ideological. In our increasingly plural context, medical centers, military units and college campuses seek chaplains and spiritual life directors from a wide spectrum of American religious communities—religious leaders who are scholars in their own traditions but prepared, as well, to engage persons of other faiths as they encounter life’s challenges, whether those are met on a college campus, in the emergency room, in a jail cell, or on assignment with the National Guard. Our MDiv program became a multi-religious program because prospective students—people who wanted to engage humanity in all of its religious complexity—asked for us to do so.
In theory, cultivating a multi-religious MDiv program makes sense for our institutional context. As a professional school within a research university, The Divnity School is not identified with any single religious community. Its faculty conduct research, write and teach about the history, texts, communities and thought of many traditions. Civil discourse among persons of all faiths and none, and between the many disciplines that study religion, has been a hallmark of the school’s culture since its inception. Undeniably, the school offers rich resources for those who want to understand their faith communities deeply. On the other hand, the assumptions and attitudes of MDiv education in particular were shaped by Christian communities for the preparation of Christian pastors. As our students bring their own experiences and practices of faith to our MDiv courses, our “arts of ministry” curriculum and instruction is shifting and expanding, our language and assumptions are changing, and our community of field education partners is growing, too.
Instructors and students alike recognize that we are in the midst of a season of transition and transformation as we refashion our MDiv program to reflect the needs and sensibilities of a spiritually plural learning community, one that is representative of the needs and sensibilities of our multi-religious culture itself. Mostly, this air of experimentation feels exciting and right: we are learning how to grow religious leaders together, side by side, and the benefits of this approach are obvious and deeply gratifying. Students apprehend and experience their own traditions and practices much more deeply having articulated them in the presence of religious others, and the practice of sustained conversation with these others grows students’ capacity for awareness, compassion and courage—habits which are critical for public leadership in complicated times. Sometimes, of course, it feels like “we don’t know what we are doing,” simply because it has so rarely been done. Multi-religious education is often awkward and challenging: we don’t yet have adequate vocabularies for engaging each other across traditions as deeply as we want and need to, nor do we have enough texts or teaching partners who can serve as resources, for example, for American Muslims and Buddhists learning about care and counseling in our contemporary context. Misunderstandings and missteps are common and sometimes painful, as students bump up against each other’s treasured beliefs and practices. In the very same class period we may encounter the beautiful complexity of religious multiplicity, and the devastating quickness with which difference can devolve into defensiveness or disconnection. Perhaps, in the end, that reality has been the source of our students’ greatest learning, and the best recommendation for multi-religious education: when human beings speak and act out of their ultimate concern, they are engaging the potential for both blessing and suffering, community and division, creativity and destruction, life and death.