At the end of August, the Times ran a story about a Harvard chaplain named Greg Epstein, an avowed atheist and “humanist rabbi,” who had been selected by his fellow-chaplains at the university (there are more than thirty of them, of diverse faiths) to serve as their president.
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 Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.
In response to this relatively mild provocation, readers aligned themselves according to their own cosmologies. In the comments online, nonbelievers, generally, expressed versions of “Right on!,” while believers tended toward “How could they?” For the former, it was good to encounter an affirmation that a godless earthling could pursue spiritual and pastoral paths. To the latter, it seemed absurd to apply the word “chaplain” to a nonreligious, chapel-less counsellor, and to elevate such a figure to a position of authority over people of faith; would the College of Cardinals elect a nihilist Pope?
Other outlets, including the Boston Globe and NPR, took up the story. Some suggested, erroneously, that Epstein had been tapped to head the divinity school, while the Daily Mail seemed to imply that Harvard had empowered Epstein to lead the entire university. Religious leaders took offense. Of the Times piece, the Harvard Christian Alumni Society stated, “It seems written in a way to prompt secular triumphalism and to provoke Christian outrage.” An “auxiliary” Catholic bishop in Los Angeles, in a column in the Post, lamented “the complete and abject surrender on the part of the presumably religious leaders at Harvard who chose this man.” All predictable enough, in year whatever of the culture wars.
Some of the other chaplains at Harvard were put off by the coverage, and by the implication that Epstein’s gain was faith’s loss. The chaplain who preceded Epstein as president, Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, the executive director of Harvard Hillel, sent Epstein a letter and cc’d the other Harvard chaplains. He described his missive as a public rebuke, which he justified with references to Leviticus, Maimonides, and the Talmud, but it also served as a supple denunciation of self-aggrandizement—a plea for humility in a look-at-me age and in a don’t-look-at-me line of work.
Steinberg wrote, “A story has been told that has promoted you beyond any status our body of Harvard Chaplains has remit to confer, causing misunderstanding and distress and bringing about damage to colleagues’ reputations and to communities’ trust in their pastors and advisors. Let me suggest—if there has been a degree of self-promotion in this course of events, there must now be a matching degree of remediation on your part.”
The rabbi granted that the outrage of some of their colleagues would be justifiable if, as he wrote, “the role of President of the Harvard Chaplains were as the journalists who have reported about you in recent days have taken it to be—but I believe the failure there may be on your part in allowing or encouraging a journalistic perception without correcting the public story yourself.”