Harvard’s Mission Drift: the elevation of an atheist to the post of chief chaplain
Remember “Mission Drift”? It was a book by Peter Greer, Chris Horst and Anna Haggard in which they offer empirical data and stories about the drift of many Christian churches and organizations over time. Beyond forgetting their first love, these organizations and institutions leave the narrow way for any number of pursuits that conform to the culture instead of Christ. And while it will come as no surprise that Harvard University has experienced mission drift since its founding by Christians to educate clergy, the news of the elevation of a atheist to the post of chief of chaplains still produces a double take.
The New York Times is reporting that Harvard University now boasts an atheist as the chief of some 40 chaplains, many of whom are not believers in the faith upon and for which the University was founded.
The Puritan colonists who settled in New England in the 1630s had a nagging concern about the churches they were building: How would they ensure that the clergymen would be literate? Their answer was Harvard University, a school that was established to educate the ministry and adopted the motto “Truth for Christ and the Church.” It was named after a pastor, John Harvard, and it would be more than 70 years before the school had a president who was not a clergyman.
Nearly four centuries later, Harvard’s organization of chaplains has elected as its next president an atheist named Greg Epstein, who takes on the job this week.
Mr. Epstein, 44, author of the book “Good Without God,” is a seemingly unusual choice for the role. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. Yet many Harvard students — some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities — attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.
“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students about the progressive movement that centers people’s relationships with one another instead of with God.
To Mr. Epstein’s fellow campus chaplains, at least, the notion of being led by an atheist is not as counterintuitive as it might sound; his election was unanimous.
What is there to say? The disconnect from the Gospel and the departure from the core tenets of the faith are plainly stated.
So who and when and how does a school established to educate clergy depart so far from its course? By degrees.
One could look at the evolution of the Harvard Arms for clues. Today it features one word, Veritas, which is Latin for truth. Of course today, the very nature of truth is debated – openly so at Harvard. When Veritas was first adopted as Harvard’s motto in 1643 there would have been no debate about the nature, origin nor point of the truth. It would have been God-centered, God-derived and Jesus centric. But just to make sure everyone was on the same page, in 1650, the Harvard Corporation chose In Christi Gloriam, a Latin phrase meaning “For the glory of Christ.” In 1847, the college clarified the truth it was pursuing again by adopting the motto, Christo et Ecclesiae, or “For Christ in the Church.”
However, by the early 20th century, the drift from Christ and His Church are evident. Veritas returns as Harvard’s motto and the meaning of the word is now as shifting as the sands of time. Harvard has undermined its own foundation and arrives today at the point where an atheist is elevated to the position of the chief of chaplains.
And most the country yawns at the news of it.