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Review: Spiritual Guidance across Religions

By Beverley Beltramo


As a health care chaplain for 15 years and now director of a large and wonderfully diverse health-system chaplaincy department, I was delighted to be asked to review Spiritual Guidance Across Religions: A Sourcebook for Spiritual Directors and Other Professionals Providing Counsel to People of Differing Faith Traditions (2014). The book is a 400-page tome edited by John Mabry, who invited 23 highly qualified practitioners of spiritual care from different religious, spiritual traditions to contribute.

A number of well-done books and resources help those of us in the interfaith caring professions as we seek to connect with persons of faiths different from our own. Spiritual Guidance Across Religions is my new favorite.


First, the breadth of traditions represented is impressive. Want to learn more about American metaphysics or Zoroastrian spiritual care? Perhaps gain greater insights into the “Spiritual Culture of the African Diaspora”? Or you want to hear about Mahayana Buddhist practice or learn about “Spiritual Guidance for Spiritual Eclectics”? That’s the tip of the iceberg.

In the book’s approach to faiths, instead of the typical alphabetically organized laundry list, traditions are grouped in meaningful ways. This approach sets the book apart. Faith traditions are sometimes organized by geography (“Religions Originating in China”), sometimes by style (“Native Traditions,” “Reformed Christian Tradition”) – but always in a way that enhances the meaning, at least for this reader. An alphabetical organization structure does little to help you understand similarities or common themes and origins.

While the breadth of traditions addressed is impressive, the actual treatment of each one is a special joy. Rather than the typical “just the facts ma’am” approach, the writers delve into the spiritual nuances of guidance and care from their various perspectives, willing to unpack issues that cannot easily be described.

In the chapter on Shintoism, for instance, we read…

“Shinto is experiential. The substance of Shinto is not found through study and philosophy, but through ‘doing,’ through action. In this chapter I will discuss the foundational beliefs, practices and terms of Shinto, and I will also try to convey the experience of Shinto … Shinto is not learned, but experienced.”

This kind of insight runs throughout the book and sets it apart from traditional interfaith care resources.

John Mabry, the editor, is ordained in the United Church of Christ, teaches spiritual care at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, California and is part of the pastoral ministry team at Santa Clara University. His special gift in this new resource is having pulled voices together who live and breathe their own traditions. These are not just scholars of the traditions (though many certainly are), but persons who practice their faith, who understand the nuance and the life-breath of that tradition. Each author offers a unique voice and a unique approach to their own faith tradition. There is no stock template for each chapter. Instead, each writer becomes a friend sitting beside you on the couch, perhaps over a cup of tea. They help you understand what they believe, why it matters, and how that belief influences the way they live their life.

The one omission for me was not finding a “tip of the hat” to the idea of cultural humility. The idea that even when we believe we understand someone’s faith tradition, it doesn’t mean we understand what that tradition means to the person in front of us. As a Roman Catholic, I know that my brand of RC is quite different even from my own sister’s! I teach chaplains that we need to ask our patients and families, “How can I be most helpful to you?” The foundation offered here provides a critical understand of the broader picture. But there must also be a place in our practice for cultural humility as well. Sometimes assuming “we know” can lead us down paths which can be as insensitive and cloddish as knowing nothing!

In short, if you do interfaith work, this book belongs not on your bookshelf but on the corner of your desk, or perhaps on your night table. It is a wonderful contribution.