Inclusivism versus intolerance

In a letter in the previous issue, recent graduate Grace Rubenstein ’01 wrote a cautionary word regarding the chaplain’s benediction at graduation last year. Ms. Rubenstein felt that, as a Jew, she was not being spoken to when Chaplain Rick Spalding addressed gratitude to the “Architect of all creation.” When he made this remark, she maintains, he was thinking of the Father of Christ – God in the Christian sense. This criticism is particularly ironic given that Chaplain Spalding is now famous for promoting religious subjectivism – “my religion is right for me,” rather than “my religion is right.”

Far more striking, however, is that her criticism of Mr. Spalding’s words centers on what he himself was thinking. Such an attack conjures up images of thought police and the all-seeing eye of Orwell’s 1984. Now, to be open, to be inoffensive, to be “politically correct,” you must not only speak in ways inclusive of many modes of thought; you may also not yourself hold any one of those possible thoughts which might be offensive to – even that might not be identical with – the thought of any listener who might be affronted. In other words, you may not hold any convictions at all. Extreme as this conclusion may sound, it is not inaccurate. The complaint is not, it would seem, an issue of representation; there is a Jewish chaplain on campus, though I do not know whether she also made a benediction at commencement. Perhaps she should have; but, in any case, it seems that Spalding is being faulted for the impropriety of broaching matters religious at all, and therein the audacity to have any concrete yet non-universally held convictions of his own. For a human being, this is not only ridiculous but impossible. Taken in religious context specifically, this calls into question the nature and the role of the chaplaincy altogether.

This college has a Jewish chaplain; it has a Catholic chaplain. Spalding is therefore responsible for the stewardship, should they desire it, of all other students whose significant convictions approximate something they would call faith – or (let us be more modern in our language) “spirituality.” Let no one claim this to be an easy task. The remaining category of students is an umbrella group for people whose beliefs include, to name just one aspect of their wide disparity, both monotheism and polytheism; everyone from Buddhists to “progressive Christians” to Muslims to “evangelical Christians.” How any person approaching any of these sets of beliefs could truly empathize with any of the others boggles the mind. In this community, in which the irrational equation of conviction with bigotry is a very seductive one, the easy answer may seem to be the filling of the chaplaincy by an atheist, or at most an agnostic. Yet such an idea makes not a mockery but a horror of the chaplaincy’s function.

To address immediately any atheist or agnostic readers who may be offended, I shall draw an analogy with another sort of pluralism. Ethnic diversity on this campus is accomplished by the fairly obvious means of drawing students from varied ethnic backgrounds. To nurture the diverse cultural contributions these students may make (and to support them as people), there are a plethora of organizations – from SoCA to CASO to the BSU to the WCJA, among any number of others. By the very nature of these groups, without which true diversity is impossible, there exist on this campus organizations where, perhaps, everyone is welcome – but where, in reality, not everyone belongs. If proponents of diversity instinctively react with aversion or defensiveness to this statement, they have misunderstood diversity. The same need applies, here, to religion.

One might well ask how this can relate to a chaplaincy which purports to serve such a diverse group of students. Naturally he cannot – and, we must see, he should not try to – be all things to all people. At the moment at which he ceases to be what he himself is, he has severely compromised his opportunity to relate even to those whose beliefs most widely differ from his. This is counterintuitive at first, but practice bears it out. I am an observant member of a religion (Roman Catholicism) that lays far more emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy than on “progressivism” in the sense of openness to the truth of mutually exclusive beliefs. Yet I think that at heart I have vastly more in common with those of deep convictions whose beliefs oppose my own than with even those who in theory share my faith, but who do not hold to its tenets (by their own assertion) to the degree of conviction at all. For example, observant Jews must, according to their own doctrine, believe that the God whom I worship and adore is suffering eternal punishment for falsely asserting His own divinity. The beliefs are irreconcilable; and yet in our mutual recognition of the existence of someone to worship and adore, we are far nearer one another than either of us could be to someone who holds that Jesus Christ is “just a sort of a nice guy.”

By this token, the current chaplaincy is in grave danger of trying so hard to please everybody that it pleases, or rather, serves, no one at all. The “multi-faith,” “pluralistic” nature of many of its current efforts is abandoning the “I believe” of faith for the insubstantial “I think” or “I feel.” Those steeped in the critical liberal arts tradition will note that “I believe” contains an intransitive verb. All people of faith can make that identical statement; and it is a complete statement. And it must be noted here that the conviction of faith and intellectual conviction are not equal. Not that faith is divorced from reason; rather, it swallows and surpasses it: intellectual ideas fall as far from faith as “I find you (intelligent, talented, any observable quality)” does from “I love you.” And this is true for any faithful “I believe.” To name the object of belief, one must append a preposition: “in ______.” Ms. Rubenstein, and everyone else as well, we must hope, will note that restricting any one person’s chosen way of finishing that line will threaten, if not preclude, everyone else’s endings as well.