by Chaplain Jared Anderson

What is a professional good human? That has to exist, right? A role where we can study and train and work to be good in effective ways? This question was one of two that I would ask my World Religions students at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah (I also offered them an A on the first day if they could name any cultural institution more powerful than religion).

Turns out, I have found that role, and that role is Chaplain. Because many cultures have outsourced the question of goodness and ethics to religion, religion professionals are tasked with questions of goodness and the deepest questions of human existence. Chaplains do the work of religion in a variety of settings, usually at the extremes of life and death.

My call to chaplaincy occurred in 2013 when I felt driven to serve the imprisoned and dying, and do so without any appeal to the afterlife or religious beliefs. This work transformed me, and my focus has shifted to serving those whose service challenges their humanity, such as the military and first responders.

After six years of relentless preparation, I now have the privilege to serve the service members of the Utah Army National Guard in two roles: a military Chaplain and the Risk Reduction Coordinator in the Military Community and Family Services office at Joint Force Headquarters. It strikes me that these two positions do the same job: increase well-being and readiness by helping soldiers access their inner resources, connecting them to their values and sources of connection and meaning. I help them resolve internal dissonance as they face external challenges, all while working within complex and problematic systems, systems that are among the most intense and rigorous in existence.

It is vital to understand that self-harm, including suicidal ideation and substance abuse, is not so much a problem as it is an ineffective solution to deeper problems. As a Chaplain and the Risk Reduction Coordinator, I get to help service members identify and address those underlying issues.

A Humanist approach to Chaplaincy is full of both paradox and power. Religion is the only aspect of human culture that pretends it is not an aspect of human culture. Religion has such a powerful impact on the world in part because people don’t understand how it works!

Military organization and service is also full of paradox and power. With all of the complexity and challenges related to military service, the military has no choice but to foster wellness as effectively and clearly as possible. As a Humanist Chaplain, I functionally break down spirituality into its components so that everyone can benefit from spirituality, no matter their beliefs. This is precisely what the Army does as well, in the updated manual for holistic health and fitness:

“The spiritual readiness domain is inclusive and universally vital to all personnel no matter their background, philosophy, or religion. It applies to both religious and non-religious persons and concepts… Spirituality is often described as a sense of connection that gives meaning and purpose to a person’s life. The spiritual dimension applies to all people, whether religious or non-religious. Identifying one’s purpose, core values, beliefs, identity, and life vision defines the spiritual dimension. These elements, which define the essence of a person, enable one to build inner strength, make meaning of experiences, behave ethically, persevere through challenges, and be resilient when faced with adversity. An individual’s spirituality draws upon parts of personal, philosophical, psychological, and religious teachings or beliefs, and forms the basis of their character… Understanding the general spiritual readiness enables leaders to encourage personal spiritual readiness in a climate where mutual respect and dignity encourage dialogue, foster team cohesion, and enable healthy free exercise of religion or no religion by all personnel” (FM 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness, 10-2).

Given that Spiritual Readiness training is mandatory for all Army personnel, and that Chaplains are the obvious ones to teach Spiritual Readiness, it is poignant that there are currently no officially Humanist Chaplains to teach this functionally Humanist training.

I have been deeply moved by the hunger I have seen for non-religious spiritual care among the soldiers I serve, and I am honored to serve in a role where I get to increase wellness and decrease risk for all of the soldiers in the Utah Army National Guard. Part of the reason why it took six years to become a military Chaplain is because my Humanist Society endorsement is not recognized by the Department of Defense. I am deeply grateful for the radical theology of my Unity Worldwide Ministries endorser: there is no god other than you (God is a principle, not a person in Unity), and you don’t need to be saved. All you have to do is release negative beliefs and practices and affirm the best of your humanity. Sound familiar?

I joke that if I am not careful, a third of the soldiers I serve will want me to be their Chaplain. In my Risk Reduction role, in a sense I already am. I am working to focus on Spiritual Readiness for all members of the Utah National Guard, and to help the other Chaplains do so as well. My journey has thus come full circle, and I am able to do the work of Humanism in the military, to increase the well-being and strength of all soldiers, of any religious belief or none.

Jared Anderson (MA, MDiv, BCC) is a Humanist and Unity-endorsed Interfaith Chaplain. He is passionate about systems theory and social science approaches to well-being, especially at the extremes of human experience. After teaching religion at the university level for thirteen years, he has served as a Chaplain in hospice, prison, hospital, first responder, and university settings, as well as the Utah Army National Guard. He currently also works as the Risk Reduction Coordinator at Utah Army National Guard Headquarters. He is on the Board of Directors of Humanists of Utah and the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, as well as the founder of the non-profit the Olam Institute. He can be reached at ja***@hu*************.org

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