The wide attention recently given to Epstein’s role is an important reminder to American Christians that whatever we may want to argue about the supposedly “good old days,” biblical Christian faith is a lot more marginal in American culture today than we sometimes want to admit.
National and even international news has been all in a tizzy over outspoken atheist Greg Epstein becoming the new president of Harvard University’s chaplains.
Does this mean that Epstein has just been hired for a new job as Harvard’s atheist chaplain? Has he become Harvard’s “chief chaplain”? Does this mean that he now “leads” and is “in charge of” Harvard’s other chaplains? Did these other chaplains decide that they “couldn’t think of anyone better” for spiritual chaplaincy at the university? Is this a big, new change for campus ministry at Harvard?
Contrary to what you may have heard elsewhere, the answer to all of these questions is “No.”
Christians who seek to follow the One who said He IS the truth should be a lot more careful to be accurate than several rushing to comment have been.
As someone who was very involved in Harvard campus ministry while earning my three-year master’s degree there not that long ago, I’d like to clarify some realities that some headlines and hot takes, from Christians as well as others, miss.
First of all, Harvard is not a Christian school.
We at IRD have raised concerns about one United Methodist university hiring a Muslim chaplain, and another United Methodist university hiring a Unitarian Universalist to be its dean of spiritual and religious life.
This is categorically different. Harvard makes no claim to be a Christian institution.
Yes, many commenting on this announcement correctly note the university’s founding by devout Puritans in the 1600s. But such commentaries too often jump right from there to the present day, skipping over such major developments as Harvard’s deep ties with the Unitarian movement, beginning even before the university started its graduate-level Divinity School in 1816. Denying the divinity of Jesus Christ is obviously a huge break from biblical Christianity.
Epstein’s election, by the consensus of his fellow chaplains, does not represent a dramatic new shift and is unlikely to be terribly consequential for Harvard.
Secondly, the overall campus ministry environment at Harvard is multi-faith. This certainly does not mean that Christian and other chaplains there affirm the truth claims of each other’s religions. But as a secular university, if the administration is going to let evangelical Christian ministries operate on campus, it will offer the same level of access to various non-Christian religious ministries.
I would much rather see my alma mater continue its “open” stance of letting us minister on campus alongside everyone else, in a free marketplace of ideas, rather than take a “closed” stance of kicking out all campus ministries.
Harvard’s 43 currently listed chaplains include many evangelical Protestants, but these are less than one third of the total. Other traditions represented include everything from Baha’i to Zoroastrianism.
Thirdly, Harvard having an atheist chaplain is not a remotely new thing. I realize “atheist chaplain” may sound as oxymoronic as “vegetarian butcher” or “pacifist soldier.”
But the reality is that there are a number of essentially humanist congregations in America where atheists have sought to approximate functions religious congregations provide in terms of social community, support through life crises, regular gatherings for interesting lectures and lively discussions, and community-service volunteering—all while trying to keep God out of it. A number of humanist campus ministries seek to similarly offer godless alternatives to traditional student ministries.
I personally do not think that this can ultimately work as well without God. But that does not change the fact that such communities exist.
Epstein has already been a chaplain of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics (HCHAA) Harvard for years. In 2005 he was ordained “as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.” And Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy began decades before that, way back in 1974.
Epstein is not the first non-Christian to hold the largely honorary title of president of the chaplains. He is unlikely to be the last. After a humanist student ministry has been established for nearly half a century, is it really that big a deal for the humanist chaplain, rather than the chaplain of another non-Christian campus ministry, to take a brief turn with the title “president”?