The rise of interfaith chaplaincy

Photo by Walker Bristol
Photo by Walker Bristol

NPR ran a delightful story yesterday about interfaith chaplains on college campuses.

From NPR:

A third of young Americans report no religious affiliation. Given the odds, you might expect life around a college chaplain’s office to be pretty dull these days. But as Monique Parsons found out, new interfaith chaplains are transforming and revitalizing this old role.

[…]

PARSONS: Joseph Ross is a junior from El Segundo.

ROSS: I have also done a Torah study my freshman year. I do atheist club and I’ve done a Muslim halaqa, which is kind of a teaching…

PARSONS: Ross is a religion major and – while you might not guess it – a lifelong Methodist. USC Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, says this complexity is common.

VARUN SONI: Some just come up with these hybridized identities – I’m a Zen Christian, I’m sushi. I was like, what’s sushi? Oh, my mom is Sunni and my father is Shia, so I’m sushi. I’m a Hin-Jew, I’m a Jew-Bu.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of interfaith chaplaincies. Religious affiliation is largely determined by culture, so increasingly multicultural societies will necessarily beget citizens with more complex religious backgrounds. And a young person who has grown up with parents from different faith backgrounds may be loath to choose one tradition over another. Interfaith communities like this one provide a safe space for them to embrace that complexity.

Of course, some people arrive at these complex identities all on their own. Aspiring interfaith chaplain Nat DeLuca grew up Lutheran and became a Buddhist:

PARSONS: He believes his experience practicing different religions is a plus, even if those religions sometimes contradict each other.

DELUCA: The comfort with paradox is something that my generation is adept at. It’s like I’m able to hold opposing viewpoints in my mind and see both sides. And there is immense value in that.

This story offers a fantastic glimpse into what an interfaith community can look like. However, we should note that many interfaith practitioners would not recognize themselves in stories like DeLuca’s. To most practitioners, the goal of interfaith interaction is to understand other beliefs and practices–not adopt them. While they may share DeLuca’s desire for a deeper understanding of a broad range of religious perspectives, they still remain firmly grounded in their own religious traditions. There’s nothing paradoxical about that.

If you are interested in reading more about the role of chaplaincy on college campuses, I recommend that you check out Walker Bristol’s piece on Humanist caregiving. Walker is Humanist in Residence at Tufts University, and a longtime NPS contributor.

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