What would you do if you were a chaplain or pastor or trusted friend given the honor of caring for someone of another faith tradition who is approaching death? My students and I have heard from many faith leaders in my world religions class this semester talk about their views of the soul and body as well as end of life care.
There were a variety of views presented, as one would expect. For all the differences, though, we can start from a common basis. As the Buddhist guest speaker shared, “Recognize our shared humanity.” As fellow humans, we should be present to them, offering assistance, silent witness, or whatever other support they may desire in their final days, hours, and moments.
In addition to recognizing our shared humanity, it is important that we seek to understand the patients’ distinct perspectives. Such understanding helps them during their time of transition and gives them comfort. In what follows, I will share some of these distinct perspectives for adherents of a few traditions.
The Buddhist leader stated that it is important that we let the person “dissolve”. From the Buddhist perspective, there is no permanent or abiding self, as there would be in Mormonism, Islam, or traditional Christianity. What continues on is karma, namely, things we have done, influences for good and for ill. While there is no permanent self, all of life is sacred, as the Dharma or principle of order in the cosmos pervades every aspect of life. My close friend, the late Abbot Kyogen Carlson, claimed that all persons and things have “innate, universal Buddha Nature.”
The Mormon guest speaker said that humanity’s fundamental dignity “derives entirely from the belief that every human being born to this earth, existed with God (spiritually), in a pre-earth life.” Humanity “is the literal, spiritual offspring of God.” We “share the same DNA” with God. As literal children of God, Mormons believe their potential is divine, according to my guest. Latter-day Saints take comfort from their belief that at the end of life, they are reunited with God, and may even be able to progress to a divine nature.
Like the Mormon, the Muslim guest speaker also maintained that life does not end with this mortal body’s cessation. For him, there is a difference between the body and the soul. We don’t have souls. We have bodies. We are our souls. Our bodies are important, and we must take care of them. Still, our bodies do not make us what we are. The soul is independent of the body, but will influence the body in the afterlife. Our body in the afterlife will be different.
For Hindus, the belief in reincarnation as a part of a spiritual cycle can bring great comfort. As with medical doctors and other healthcare professionals, it is important that pastors and chaplains account for the following reflection at medscape.com:
Healthcare practitioners need to know more about the tenets of Hinduism to provide culturally sensitive care. Family and community interconnectedness, karma, and reincarnation are major beliefs of Hinduism. Healthcare decisions may be made by the most senior family member or the eldest son. Karma is a combination of cosmic and moral cause and effect that can cross lifetimes and life lessons learned for spiritual growth. The belief in reincarnation gives great comfort to the dying and their families because they know their loved one will be reborn into a new life and that they are not gone forever. Enduring physical suffering may lead to spiritual growth and a more fortunate rebirth.
The preceding statement not only shines light on Hindu teaching and practice, but also helps us account for other important factors, such as being mindful of significant others, including family members. It is important to consider their views, but especially those of the patients themselves. Not always is it the case that significant others, including family members, share the patients’ convictions on what should be done at the end of life.
Christian ministers may share their beliefs concerning the soul and their personal hopes and beliefs, if asked. But they should be very much on guard against manipulating conversations given that they have “a captive audience.” My colleague, Wm. Darius Myers, who serves as a Hospice chaplain, points out that, “Those of us in official capacities as chaplains need to be especially aware of the implied power imbalance. As a member of the healthcare team, our opinion carries far greater weight than usual. The patient often assumes that the quality and quantity of their care depends upon their amicable relationship with hospital, hospice, home-care, or other healthcare staff.” Often, the best way we can share our own faith in such contexts is to show the kind of care noted above, namely by attending to our shared humanity, an understanding of their faith convictions, concern for significant others in the patients’ lives, and their personal wishes. We cannot always share our faith as Christians, but we can show our faith by how we care.
Reincarnation can bring comfort if it means another opportunity to escape the wheel of samsara and rebirths, but rebirths are often viewed in a negative light in Hinduism. Reincarnation might be viewed positively if it means escaping a lower place in a caste, but ultimately for the Hindu the atman or individual soul is trapped in reincarnation and hopes to escape and experience moksha or release and union with Brahman, the oneness of all.
http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/733892 (accessed on 11/24/2015). In some ways, this paragraph may reflect the positive ways reincarnation is viewed in the West in contrast to Hinduism in is traditional, Indian context.
I have learned a great deal from Dr. Robert Potter regarding the importance and complexities of accounting for the perspectives of the various significant parties when dealing with end of life care. Dr. Potter serves as former chair of the Bioethics Study Group at OHSU and one of my seminary’s science advisors for the Science for Seminaries grant through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He spoke on this subject for The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins forum, “Healthcare, Ethics, and Faith,” Friday, March 13, 2015.
I am thankful for the helpful feedback and insights of Rev. Wm. Darius Myers and Prof. John W. Morehead pertaining to this article.
See my post with John W. Morehead, “Predatory Proselytism: The Hard Sell”: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2013/05/predatory-proselytism-the-hard-sell-2/. You can find out more about Wm. Darius Myers’ work as a chaplain in this arena at http://deathpastor.blogspot.com/. For more on multi-faith engagement from various angles, see www.religious-diplomacy.org.