Harvard Shows That Even Atheists Can Be Chaplains
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I’m surprised that the selection of an atheist as Harvard’s head chaplain has made so many waves. For one thing, Greg Epstein, who already attends to the spiritual needs of what is doubtless a large contingent of young humanists, atheists and agnostics, is merely primus inter pares. A variety of God-fearing Harvard chaplains yet abound, all of whom voted for Epstein as their chief.
More important, university chaplaincies aren’t what they used to be. And that might not be a bad thing.
Ask any administrator why a school has a chaplain and you’re likely to hear that the office exists for the benefit of students who are in need of counseling within their various faiths, or perhaps who have questions about the Big Issues — the purpose of life, humanity’s place within the universe, and so on.
Princeton, for example, says that their chaplains “attend to the spiritual needs of students” through “ritual observance, spiritual counseling, and engaging programming.” Important work, to be sure — but a considerable change from the era when a university chaplain was viewed as a crucial moral voice shaping the future of the nation by molding the consciences of students.
Traditionally, the chaplain was a high official of the university, often sharing pride of place with president or provost. Consider Phillips Brooks, the renowned abolitionist preacher who a few years after the Civil War became a Harvard chaplain. When Brooks died in 1893, the campus newspaper reported that the entire student body was “requested to gather in the yard, on either side of the drive from University to the Old Gate, just before two, to salute the funeral as it passes by.”
In their heyday, the chaplains of the major universities exerted an influence far beyond the groves of academe. In 1930, when the chaplain of Princeton University attacked the moral influence of big business from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church, the sermon made newspapers across the country. William Sloane Coffin, Yale’s chaplain during the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s, was so famously outspoken that he was condemned before the Internal Security Committee of the House of Representatives. (The Reverend Scot Sloan, a longtime fixture of the “Doonesbury” comic strip, was partly based on Coffin.)
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine news organizations paying much attention to the political opinions (not to be confused with the religious beliefs) of a university chaplain. I would be surprised if many people outside of Harvard’s orbit — or even inside it — could recall the name of Epstein’s predecessor. I mean by this no judgment on anyone. The world has changed. So has the academy. In recent decades, college chaplaincies have been “recontextualized” to serve as “both as a non-denominational spirituality and as a form of mental health care.”
On the other hand, perhaps it’s the notion of a chaplain as a public figure that was aberrant. In that case, maybe the office is simply returning to its roots. Most sources agree that the first chaplains were appointed at Cambridge in 1256, although an exhaustive investigation published in 1906 reports that none of their names were verified until two decades later. Even among the early chaplains who’ve been identified, none have gone down in history.
Moreover, the chaplaincy is no longer tied as it once was to the religious visions that drove so many universities. Once upon a time, the schools saw their mission as training the future leaders of the nation and the world in the Christian (mostly Protestant) faith. Cambridge forbade admission of Catholics until 1895. Yale admitted its first self-identified agnostic in the 1930s. Brown still imposed mandatory chapel (at least on paper) into the 1950s.
In this sense, the fading prominence of the chaplaincy might be a sign of how the work of chaplains has changed — for colleges serve far more diverse populations, and different students have different needs. True, in practice the wheels of change grind slowly. Georgetown’s 1999 appointment of a Muslim chaplain made headlines. Yale did not follow suit until 2008; Harvard until 2017. But progress is being made.
As to Epstein’s appointment, I understand why some people are perturbed, but it’s been a good three-quarters of a century since the major universities saw their job as reinforcing the religious teaching of families. Besides, the event may not be as epochal as some seem to think. Back in the 1990s, I happened to be present at a university convocation where the chaplain’s invocation began with roughly these words: “May whoever or whatever might have been involved our creation ...” — implicitly accepting as a strong possibility that there was no Creation (big-C) at all.
Perhaps the chaplain was trying so hard to be ecumenical that her prayer became incoherent. Or perhaps she was offering an entirely coherent prayer to what she believed to be a cold, lonely, godless universe. People who believe such things need chaplains too.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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