Tolerance and Encouragement [VI]: Is ‘Reverence toward Otherness’ Possible? -- by Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD

14 Nov 2017 9:28 PM | Perry Miller, Editor (Administrator)

“Individuals are stormed at, from the outside as well as the inside, by random cultural snippets of belief, disbelief, and unbelief. Their … consciousness … becomes a battleground on which …  [these] shiftingly contend.”  [Paul Pruyser]

Between June 2011 and September 2013, Pastoral Report published five of my essays on “Tolerance and Encouragement” – essays that were hoped to help the clinical pastoral field move ahead – out of a time of turmoil and toward a time of renewal. As context for the current essay, I encourage you to take a new look at the previous essays.

I just finished reading the closing, summarizing section of Paul Pruyser’s Between Belief and Unbelief (1974) – a section titled, “Toleration of Beliefs and Belief in Tolerance” – and realized that I had to try conceptualizing one more essay. Notice that I said “try” – as I am having difficulty wrapping my mind around the task.

Clinical pastoral chaplaincy is charged with ministering to all who are suffering, bewildered, or vulnerable – regardless of faith or lack of faith – regardless of belief, disbelief, or unbelief. The field seems to have mastered that task in regard to religion. A new question – that has been growing louder over the last two decades – is can the field lead the way – at least in some small part – in regard to politics – again, regardless of belief, disbelief, or unbelief. Can clinical pastoral chaplaincy indeed be called upon to engage all? – or, at least, make an effort to engage all? “All” includes both the entire world’s people – from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria to North Korea and everywhere else – and the entire country’s people – from conservative to independent to moderate to liberal and every viewpoint between.

Pruyser telegraph’s his thesis in the very opening pages of his book, but the message really hits home in the concluding pages, from which I would like to quote.

“On what grounds is toleration to be fostered, given the fact that the very word ‘toleration’ implies an attitude of disapproval, dislike, or condemnation of the things one is asked to put up with under its banner? Indeed, how can toleration be fostered if all of us treat our own beliefs as love objects and the divergent beliefs of others as objects of hate? …”

“Noble as patient forbearance may be, it falls short of espousing tolerance as a positive virtue in its own right. I sense a difference between toleration and tolerance: the former is ‘putting up with something despicable,’ and the latter is ‘letting be with respect to the nature of divergent states of being.’ … What is the source of the reverence toward otherness that is implied in ‘letting be’? …”

“Tolerance can be born only from some such confrontation [with ‘the ultimate power of the cosmos, of G-d, of fate, or, in abstract terms, the noncontingent’] in which the person gains insight into the extent of his [/her] self-inflation, the tenacity of his [/her] omnipotent strivings, and his [/her] penchant for one-upmanship over his [/her] fellowman – and grants other people with other beliefs the respect they deserve. …”

“Such an affirmation of reality, with the humility and renunciation it entails, is an important condition for the practice of tolerance taken in the positive sense of willingness to let be – for some things simply must be, such as an enormous diversity of belief systems.”

As I suggested above, the question of tolerance – broadly conceived – has been growing louder over the last two decades. Pruyser named the problem almost five decades ago. Certainly, the question did not pop up just this last year or so.

I’ve given the previous essays as well as this one the covering title of “Tolerance and Encouragement”. In the previous essays, the word “encouragement” was meant to suggest support toward positive transformation and growth. That does seem to be the challenge. Can we reorient our thinking toward cooperative productive change? How can we, in this time of widespread turmoil, engage the entire world’s people and the entire country’s people in positive transformation and growth?



The photo is from the year of my first public lecture about the background of clinical pastoral chaplaincy:

1972, “From Religious to Medical Psychotherapy: The Emmanuel Movement, Boston, 1906 to 1910.” presented before Cheiron: The International Society for the History of the Behavioral & Social Sciences, Calgary, Alberta.

2011, “Tolerance and Encouragement [I]: Among the Roots of the Clinical Pastoral Tradition.” on the internet at
[explores the intriguing circumstances of the contested ordination of Anton Theophilus Boisen, founder of the clinical pastoral chaplaincy movement]

2011, “Tolerance and Encouragement [II]: At the Core of the Modern Clinical Pastoral Tradition.” on the internet at

2011, “Tolerance and Encouragement [III]: Within a Covenant of Mutual Accountability.” on the internet at .

2013, “Tolerance and Encouragement [IV]: Having Strong Feelings – Without Being Self-Righteous.” on the internet at .

2013, “Tolerance and Encouragement [V]: Making Room for Divine Presence – instead of ‘Paging’ Him or Her; Interfaith? Multifaith? Engaging Others in Their Faiths.” on the internet at .


Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD

Editor's Note: Robert Charles Powell, MD, PhD, is the leading historian of the clinical pastoral movement. Many of his published writings are posted on the Pastoral Report. Readers can use the search field, located in the upper right corner of the website, to locate his articles. As a practicing psychiatrist, his writings reflect his daily investment in his clinical practice of providing psychotherapy and care to his patients. Contact Dr. Powell by clicking his name, above. -- Perry Miller, Editor