This posting from the issue of Liturgy dealing with “Death and the Liturgy” is by Raggs Ragan, Canon Pastor of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, whose excerpt here explores the valuable insights from people of several faiths in her pastoral care with those who are dying.
Liturgy and ritual are important to humans, regardless of their belief systems. Christians are called to address the reality of dying through liturgical practices of our own particular traditions, but we also can learn about our own traditions vis-à-vis other traditions to shed light on how we might better facilitate companionship and dying for our own members. I employed the discipline of comparative theology to learn from contemporary Buddhist and Jewish colleagues. I expected to learn different things from these two very different traditions, one sharing our Abrahamic roots, the other from a very different root but influential in the development of hospice practice. What I learned from extensive reading and interviews of lay and ordained practitioners was that the two traditions (in their myriad variations) share some common perceptions which I found of great potential value to our Christian practice today.
Comparative theology does not encourage one tradition to appropriate what belongs to another, but by its light to better appreciate one’s own tradition asking the question: What do people in traditions other than mine do on the journey to and through death? The discipline of comparative theology is a respectful way to learn from one another without judgment, discovering ideas and practices that illuminate one’s home tradition. Francis Clooney describes comparative theology as “learning across religious borders in a way that discloses the truth of my faith, in the light of their faith.” [Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 16].
This deepens appreciation of one’s own practices in light of the other; it is not a contest. Comparative theology is not intellectual or spiritual tourism. The practice involves looking at specific values and ideas that are important in both the home tradition and the one “visited” in order to find new ways to use, have, or live them now.
Daniel Sheridan underscores the gifts of comparative theology by using the chemical model of a catalyst: “The catalyst ennobles and enhances the interaction of the two other substances, chemically, yet when the reaction is completed, the catalyst reemerges with its original state intact.” [Daniel P. Sheridan, Loving God: Krsna and Christ (Eerdmans, 2007)]. The catalyst sparks new images and understandings. He speaks of regarding the piece we study from the other as a beautiful gift, which we appreciate and return intact, making it clear that one intends not to appropriate what belongs to another, but to place it in relationship to oneself and one’s own tradition in such a way that it enhances their interaction, but itself remains unchanged.
My approach to this application of comparative theology was both through reading the pertinent literature and interviewing a number of lay and ordained Jewish and Buddhist practitioners about their experience and practice. The journey proved inspiring and enlightening, contributing to a long doctoral thesis. Here I hope to share some of the key observations as they have shaped my own thoughts on liturgies for use with dying people and their companions. Despite the great variety of belief and practice in both faith traditions, there were obvious common threads.
The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 1 available by personal subscription and through many libraries.