pastoral care for humanists? : the Rev. Jill Jarvis responds

This guest post merits a guest reply; Rev. Jarvis, thanks for your words.  Readers, anything to add?  



Alicia, this is a distressing situation indeed – you’re far from your loved ones, unable to help in any practical way, worried about both your sister and your parents. Fortunately you’re finding good support among your close friends, both online and in person. You know you’re not alone and you have people to affirm your feelings and listen deeply. But it sounds like you’re wanting something more, and wondering whether your nontheistic religion could possibly provide it. What is pastoral care for the humanist?

In any context I’m aware of, pastoral care is pretty much what you’re receiving from loving and trusted friends, and even the internet.  It’s a compassionate witness to those feelings of sorrow and helplessness, a non-anxious presence, and awareness that you’re not alone.

But even with that loving support provided by friends, you long to talk to your minister. Maybe it would be helpful to consider what you feel is missing. 

As you describe what you imagine a Christian minister might say, it seems to be a way of making sense of what you’re experiencing.  What’s the meaning behind all the pain? Is there a larger context, and can it offer hope? I think you’re asking whether your religion can help you make sense of your pain and fear. 

If it ultimately can’t, I’d advise you to consider changing religions. But first, take the time to struggle with understanding your experience of helplessness and vulnerability, in light of your own faith. The Rev. Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, says that when our current faith is inadequate to explain our reality, we have three options:  reject our faith, deny our experience, or become theologians.  That last option is about wrestling with the stories and traditions and our own experience until it all becomes meaningful, and we have a faith we can rely on to help us make it through this night and the many nights to come.

Chaplains in a hospital aren’t supposed to impose their own theology on a patient struggling through a life crisis.  They’re trained to provide support and comfort to patients of all religions and none. They mostly listen and affirm, meeting people where they are. But if a person in crisis signals a need to understand their situation in a greater spiritual sense, if they’re searching for a deeper meaning, the chaplain helps them do that by evoking the power of their own traditions and beliefs (the patient’s, not the chaplain’s.)

 I think most UU ministers are particularly good at this. We don’t feel called to make everyone’s experience fit neatly into One Great True Story.

Though I’m not a Christian, I really doubt that most liberal Christian ministers would be evoking the Christian worldview in quite the literal, simplistic sense you describe. How would that really help someone in crisis? Only if you’re truly able to ignore the realities of this life in favor of a joyful existence after death, would (it seems to me) you find that comforting.  It’s all part of a larger plan controlled by a God that has the power to make it all better…..really? Just observing life as you know it tells you that things sometimes don’t turn out as we hope, good people suffer, we are all vulnerable all the time.  If you hear the Christian story in that literal sense, you have to conclude that maybe God won’t make things better for you, even though God could. Where’s the comfort in that?

I think you’re longing for this sort of comfort, but seeing it available only if you were able to accept that supernatural literalism, and you can’t.  It doesn’t fit with your experience of life.  But underneath Christian dogma is the reality of human existence that can be evoked, through Christian stories and traditions, to make meaning in a much deeper, non-literal sense that does resonate with people’s experience.  The same can be said for Unitarian Universalism, with a non-theistic focus – but as with any religious tradition, you have to do the wrestling part.  Humanism is not (should not be) just an absence of certain beliefs.  If it ultimately can’t help you find meaning and comfort through the joy and suffering of life, I’d advise exploring other alternatives.  Naturalistic humanism works for me, but the wrestling has taken years, and if you’re doing it right, is never over.

In this case, the first step would be to talk to your minister. He should be able to help provide context and form for the wrestling. Blessings on your journey.


8 thoughts on “pastoral care for humanists? : the Rev. Jill Jarvis responds

  1. I think this is a wonderful response.

    What I would add is that many of the counseling approaches are at least in part inspired by philosophical/religious traditions. But these traditions are larger in that they combine particular counseling approaches with some interpretation of the nature of reality.

    For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is inspired in part by stoicism. Dialectical behavioral therapy is inspired in part by Buddhism. You don’t have to believe in stoicism or Buddhism to do these counseling approaches. But there is this potential deeper meaning if you go beyond the counseling approaches to a more fundamental exploration.

    I think it is entirely compatible with humanism to have a faith, backed up at least in part by experience and discussion, that there is some underlying order that we can discern and live by, and that life is better for us if we do so, and that is true even in the face of suffering. I think that is part of the teachings of the Buddha, as well as of the stoics and other thinkers in the Greek tradition. The humanist difference is that this order is found in nature as it is, without adding a deity to the mix.

    I don’t know if this is of any immediate help to Alicia. But I know that thinking about, reading about, and exploring these questions are important to me. I know that personally I have found meaning and solace in the words of Socrates in the Apology, and of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations.

  2. Thank you so much, Rev. Jarvis, and timbartik, for taking the time to consider my situation and respond so thoughtfully.

    However, I feel like the answer to my Big Question (What does pastoral care have to offer to the humanist that a good friend or therapist doesn’t?) was: Nothing.

    I asked this question both as someone unsure of contacting my minister for support with this situation and also as someone who’s struggled to discern her own place in healing ministry – religious or secular? Why go to div school and pursue chaplaincy instead of becoming an awesome secular therapist? What does liberal, non-christian theology have to offer the world that secular ministry doesn’t?

    I guess the problem is that I really asked two questions. One was personal – when do I talk to my minister, even if it’s appropriate, is there a point? And the other was broad – what are those of us who are non-theistic doing (in the world) as UUs, and why?

  3. Alicia:

    In response to your second question (“what are those of us who are non-theistic doing as UUs and why?”), I can only give my own personal answer, as a lifetime UU and lifetime non-theist.

    1. I find extremely useful and grounding the weekly ritual and discipline of attending church and getting a message that calls me to look beyond our daily activities to a world of wider meanings.

    2. I don’t know if a secular therapist or friend will necessarily speak of following a better life path as a choice that is DEMANDED of us as a moral imperative, or as being DEMANDED of us by the nature of the world.

    For example, I do not think that the following phrases are likely to be said in secular therapy, or by the average friend, because these phrases demand too much of us or assume too much about the nature of the world.

    (1) My church’s minister, Jill McAllister, ends each service with some closing words that include the following:

    “As you go out from this time and place, remember to once again let all that you do be done in love.”

    Has no explicit theistic content, yet is not exactly a message you would expect to hear so directly from a secular therapist or your average friend. It is a call to live differently.

    (2) Socrates, from the Gorgias (translated by Robin Waterfield):

    “I’ll tell you what the ideal is that we should be aiming ourselves to live by, in my opinion. We should devote all our own and our community’s energies towards ensuring the presence of justice and self-discipline, and so guaranteeing happiness. That’s what should guide our actions. We shouldn’t refuse to restrain our desires, because that condemns us to a life of endlessly trying to satisfy them. And that is the life of a predatory outlaw, in the sense that anyone who lives like that will never be on good terms with anyone else — any other human being, let alone a god — since he’s incapable of co-operation, and co-operation is a prerequisite for friendship. In fact,the experts’ opinion is that co-operation, love, order, discipline, and justice bind heaven and earth, gods and men. That’s why they call the universe an ordered whole, my friend, rather than a disorderly mess or an unruly shambles.”

    Again, not a particular theistic message, yet this links a guide to life with some argument about the nature of the universe, which Plato and Socrates at least believed could be provided with a reasonable argument (not certainty) based on observing the nature of the world and the nature of human beings and discussing that nature. I do not think that this would be a message of a secular therapist.

    (3) Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations, translated by Gregory Hays:

    “”Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?”

    Again, I don’t think this is a likely message from the average secular therapist, or the average friend. It’s too demanding and challenging.

    The question is: Is there enough in the nature of the universe and the nature of human beings to provide a compelling guide for life? Can nature be as inspiring a guide as traditional theistic images of a deity? Many thinkers have said Yes. I agree. But your mileage may vary.

    • Tim,
      I think this is the answer I was looking for, in many ways.
      “I don’t know if a secular therapist or friend will necessarily speak of following a better life path as a choice that is DEMANDED of us as a moral imperative, or as being DEMANDED of us by the nature of the world.”

      (and I love all of those supporting quotes)
      Thanks for taking the time, again, to reply.

  4. Pingback: UUs discuss marriage equality, worship, holy days and more « : The Interdependent Web

  5. Alicia – To answer the questions, Why is this happening? Having gone through a tragic experience at a young age – I say the “Why” is the “experience”.That is hard to understand in the moment, though. But what you are for having come through that experience is often much more than what you were before. I liken that to the whole Easter story – I have died to become reborn anew with this experience “within” me.

    In the immediacy to the person experiencing it – I am sure that is not an adequate answer. So, I do like “I don’t know”. It is better than – “it is meant to be” – OR – “you / he / she are in a better place”….that always pissed me off – not comforted me.

    I think to live an easy life is not necessarily the best life. To go through rough experiences (I’ve also struggled with depression), it is helpful to know there is another side – but it is also helpful to know we should embrace being “in it”. That is the part that makes us better for the experience.

    I think these are helpful things that humanism / UUism can provide vs. traditional religion.


  6. Alicia, as to your question of whether you should become a chaplain or a secular therapist: what about transcendence? Does not the secular context limit us to what we can know and experience as humans? For example, with suffering, it explains the what and the how but not the why, as Jill Jarvis states. Perhaps religion, dogma, creed, philosophy, ethics, and even culture are all limiting because they each depend on a human pretext and context. Surely much more lies beyond our human understanding and experience.

    In the midst of suffering, I suspect no one, not even a fundamentalist Christian enjoys a pat answer to “WHY did this happen to me?” This year in my hospital chaplaincy I have come to see people in crisis as stuck between theodicy and a disinterested universe. My response to the question of WHY is always, “I don’t know.” Alicia, if you want to stick with the what and the how then go for a career as a therapist. If you want to plumb the fathoms of the why and never find a complete answer then go into ministry.

    For me, seeking a spiritual life in the context of a religious institution is about the intangibles. The human experience of romantic love can be atomized by physiology and psychology. The notion of brotherly love can be contained in philosophy and ethics. But for me, the kind of Love Jill M refers to in her closing words cannot be reduced to any humanly described essence; it is ineffable and intangible yet essential to our being; we can’t describe it but only point to it. And yes, even though I say Love is intangible, indeed it does demand something of us.

    In my chaplaincy experience it is Love with a capital L that I try to clear the way for in a pastoral visit. I fail more often than I achieve it because my human-ness gets in the way. Yet, I believe that full presence and deep listening – witnessing as Jill Jarvis puts it – is enormously helpful to a person in crisis regardless of who the witness is. In any case, chaplaincy/ministry whether done in the context of theism or humanism, is not interchangeable with therapy. In practice, they are very different things.

    Blessings on your discernment.

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