Harvard jumped the shark with an atheist “chaplain”
It has just been said that Harvard University has elected its very first atheist chaplain. Yes, you read that right: Greg Epstein, who identifies as a “humanist rabbi,” has been chosen as chaplains chaplain for the religious community at Chic Ivy.
Talk about jumping the shark.
Epstein, who ministered to unbelievers and non-religious scholars at Harvard, has been described as a “staunch atheist.” Yet he will coordinate the efforts of all the chaplains at one of America’s leading universities.
He told the New York Times, “There is a growing group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still feel a real need for conversation and support about what it means to be a good human and to live an ethical life. The various chaplains of Harvard, a professional community representing many of the world’s religious traditions, unanimously elected Epstein to represent them.
Listen, as a Catholic bishop, I’m not denying that a lot of young people are drifting into disbelief and religious disaffiliation; one in five Americans now describes themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and that group is rather young, educated and liberal, pollsters say.
Churches should, of course, reach out to this demographic, including sponsoring conversation sessions, philosophical debate societies, or pizza and beer forums where students discuss ethical and spiritual issues. And if Harvard wanted to appoint an unbeliever to oversee these confabs, the school would get no argument from me.
What Is disturbs me is the utter and abject surrender on the part of the alleged religious leaders at Harvard who chose this man. If a professed atheist counts as a chaplain – that is, a head of a religious service in a chapel – then obviously “religion” has come to mean nothing at all.
It has been a long time coming. The elite’s distortion of religion to the level of friendly discussion about improving one’s moral life and inner feelings can be attributed to two German philosophers writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Immanuel Kant was of the opinion that authentic religion ultimately had nothing to do with doctrines, dogmas, prayer and the liturgy. Rather, faith was all about the cultivation of morality. The popular version of Kant’s teaching is on display today whenever someone says, “You know what we believe ultimately doesn’t matter, as long as we’re nice people.
Kant’s young contemporary, Friedrich Schleiermacher, argued that religion, at heart, is not a set of doctrines, but rather a feeling of absolute dependence, or as he sometimes puts it, “a sense and a taste for infinite “. The great philosopher GWF Hegel scoffed at this sentimentalization of religion, noting: “If Schleiermacher is right, then my dog is the perfect Christian!
My point is that the relativization of doctrine has led, in steady stages over two centuries, to the situation at Harvard today: even the most basic of doctrines – belief in God – doesn’t matter. One can still, of course, be perfectly “religious” without it.
But it’s so absurd. As a Catholic clergyman, I believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and loving God who brought the entire universe into being out of nothing and who now sustains and draws it to himself. This God chose the people of Israel, whom he endowed with the divine law, the covenant, the prophecy and the temple. In the fullness of time he was embodied in a first century Jew called Jesus of Nazareth, who died on a Roman cross, rose from the dead and now calls on everyone to submit to his lordship.
Say what you want about it all. Affirm it, deny it, argue it. Tell me I’m crazy to believe it. But by God, it’s a religion. Of course, different religions make different doctrinal claims, but at the very least, they affirm the existence of God. (I know, I know, some branches of Buddhism may be the exception here, but it’s the exception that proves the rule.)
I’m sure Epstein is a nice guy. I have nothing against him. But I want to urge his presumably religious colleagues at Harvard who elected him: show some self-esteem. Being a chaplain has something to do with worshiping God – and you shouldn’t be ashamed to say it.
Robert Barron is the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles.