Faith no more

I couldn’t believe, when I first read it, that Harvard’s chaplain is an atheist. Then I felt stupid for being surprised. That die was likely cast when Harvard’s overseers struck Christo et Ecclesiae from its place surrounding Veritas on the university’s seal. What need Christ and Church, after all, when we can have unadulterated truth? Somewhere in there they turned the third book on that seal outward as well, where before it had faced inward, symbolizing that man cannot know all the things of God. In an age when one of the most respected conservative theologians in America can claim to distinguish between God’s ultimate and penultimate goals however, I suppose we can forgive the smaller heresies of academic pagans.

Now it seems there’s some regret over striking that slogan from Harvard’s seal — at least the Ecclesiae part. Apparently people need something like church after all, hence this chaplain’s enthusiasm for playing at it by setting up congregations to perform all the traditional functions of church without the annoying God part. Now I read that the Christ-less churchman is aiming, inspired by President Obama’s nod to the faithless in his inaugural address, to take his model nationwide. Here I was thinking it already existed, going by the name of Starbucks.

I think what we see here is a compelling reply to the tired argument that men invented Christianity for solace in the face of a harsh world. It seems to me that view reflects a considerable ignorance of men, and of Christianity, and of the world, for that matter. If men were to set about inventing a self-therapeutic faith, I would expect them to invent something like, well, a church with no God to make demands on them. And who better to do that than a chaplain with no faith?


  1. C L

    The Humanist’ “Church” creed is fascinating in its multitude of contradictions.:
    “a commitment to live ethical, personally fulfilling lives, while serving the greater good” Not only is the Harvard “Chaplain” a walking contradicion, his credo is a talking one!

  2. Andy Crouch

    There are a myriad of “chaplains” at Harvard, among them a humanist chaplain, who are allowed to minister to students of all religious backgrounds. It is indeed a bit of a conundrum that a humanist version of such a position exists, though in fact the existence of such a chaplain is best understood as a response to the extraordinary resurgence of Christian faith at Harvard and elsewhere (there was no need for such a chaplain in the 1940s and 1950s!).

    However, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, who is what would normally be referred to as “Harvard’s” (i.e., university-paid) chaplain, is an American Baptist (and, risking repeating myself, trinitarian Christian) pastor, The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes.

  3. Post
  4. Ilya Lozovsky

    Chris —

    Where is the contradiction in “a commitment to live ethical, personally fulfilling lives, while serving the greater good”?

    It may be self-explanatory to you but it sure isn’t to me. Care to explain?


  5. C L

    Philisophically speaking, all three contradict each other. If one values the greater good, then ones own fulfillment is put on the back burner. If one wants to live ethically, then “personal” fulfillment is not always possible (peronal fulfillment is not the same as personal purpoose). If one wants to live ethically, yet values the greater good, one must act unethically at times for the greater good.
    I suppose that if these three were looked at from a utopian standpoint, then perhaps these three statements would not contradict, but simply in the real world, stuck here in the cave, they do.

  6. John

    Echoing Andy Crouch above, this is just one of Harvard’s Chaplains. The primary chaplain at Harvard — the one who runs Memorial Church — remains one of the more eloquent academic defenders of Christianity working (even if many people disagree with some elements of his life and theology). I haven’t read them yet, but apparently Professor Gomes books are excellent introductions to the Gospel as are his lectures on the Bible at Harvard College and the Harvard Divinity School. This Humanist chaplain is one of an army of people they have (Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) to accommodate students of different faiths. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. What do you think?

  7. Tony


    What’s wrong with giving infidels the title of chaplain is that it betrays the word as well as the Christian faith. It betrays the word because the chaplain is the guardian of the chapel (derived, interestingly, from the name given to those who guarded the half-cloak of St. Martin of Tours). It betrays the faith, meanwhile, because it reduces Christianity to one among many options or truths, when our faith is that it is the light of truth, and that those who eschew it are not differently enlightened, but dwelling in darkness.

    It is akin to calling the high priest of rabbit sacrifices a bishop, or the guru of self-affirmation a reverend father. In doing so we not only drain these words of meaning, we lend credence to the falsity that there are other doors to heaven than what is opened for us by Christ.

  8. John

    I think I just disagree with the modern meaning of the word “chaplain”. I’m sure it was initially specific to the Christian church, but in common usage (as my definitive source I’ll point you to the Wikipedia entry for “chaplain”!) it’s come to mean something like “counselor”. Given that a lot of students at Harvard are Muslims, Buddhists, and humanists in addition to Christians, I’m not sure having counselors who are able to connect with those religious traditions is a bad thing. None of those varied chaplains have to “lend credence to the falsity that there are other doors to heaven”, they simply have to represent their own traditions well.

  9. Tony

    I think it’s come to mean “counselor” because so many of us are willing to play along with the destruction of language. The word “counselor,” after all, was readily available, whereas the word “chaplain,” if the Oxford English Dictionary is any guide, still “means” Christian clergyman, though in another generation or so I imagine the infidels will have succeeded in denuding it of its particular meaning. So why did they opt instead for “chaplain,” laden as it was (is) with Christian heritage?

    Precisely because it carries that heritage, I’ll wager. To force the illusion of equivalence between the Buddhist, the humanist, and the Christian. To not so subtly announce to onlookers that whereas Harvard was in the past a benighted citadel of Christianity, now it embraces all faiths equally.

    Which is fine, for a humanist university in a pluralistic society. By all means, give the non-Christians counselors, gurus, holy men, shamans. What I object to is playing along, as a Christian, with the notion that these counselors are something higher, and even worse, the notion that an ordained minister of Christ is something lower.

Comments are closed.