Last week, The New York Times ran a provocative piece stating that the new president of the Harvard Chaplains is an atheist. Greg Epstein was elected unanimously last spring by his fellow Harvard chaplains. I am one of the people who voted for him.
For seven years, I have worked at Harvard as an evangelical campus minister employed by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). I believe the Bible is authoritative and entirely trustworthy as God’s Word. I believe that Jesus alone is the way of salvation, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. So why would I vote for an atheist to lead the Harvard Chaplains?
The answer lies in the unique, decentralized approach of the Harvard Chaplains and how that group of leaders from many faiths (or no faith) has opened doors for gospel-centered ministry on the campus of a prestigious Ivy League school. The real Harvard Chaplains group—not the one poorly represented in the media—tells a different and very significant story of how evangelicals can flourish in interfaith spaces without compromising faith, truth, or mission.
In response to The New York Times profile, many Christian and conservative media outlets were quick to fuel the sense of aggrievement felt by religious people who are understandably trying to protect themselves against the rising tide of secularism. In so many words, they’re concerned that “even faith spaces will be ruled by secularists, should Harvard have its way.”
Had I not been in the room where it happened, I might have had a similar reaction to the news.
That room was of course a Zoom call. It took place in the spring. As a group of about 30, we voted on a slate of chaplains for next year’s executive board. I was voted in as chair of the membership committee, and Greg Epstein—Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005—was voted in as president. There was very little discussion, a unanimous vote, and a lot of thankfulness for the various chaplains willing to serve in various ways, including the rabbi we voted for the previous year, and the Lutheran minister before him, and the evangelical campus minister before her.
Some media outlets have called Epstein the “chief chaplain.” Others claim he “will oversee the activities of all religious communities on campus,” and still others say he’s now “directing the university’s more than 40 religious leaders.”
These reports fail to appropriately portray the nature of the role. Harvard has no “chief chaplain,” and the president of the Harvard Chaplains does not direct spiritual life on campus. We are a decentralized, nonhierarchical community of independent chaplaincies, with about 40 chaplains spanning roughly 25 denominations, organizations, traditions, and religions.
We are Harvard affiliates but generally not employees of Harvard. We do not report to any higher-ups on matters of faith or doctrine. We share a primary commitment to treat each other’s communities fairly and honestly and a secondary, broader commitment to the spiritual needs of the people of Harvard. We are a consensus-based community, and consensus is often easily reached because no one is expected to agree on matters of doctrine.
The president is chosen from among us, normally to serve two one-year terms. That person is primarily a servant of the chaplains—coordinating, convening, and leading our meetings, as well as serving as a conduit between us and the office of the president of Harvard University. They also occasionally represent us at events here or there.
Chaplain presidents are chosen not to reflect whose tradition is ascendant, nor as a reward to the most influential chaplain. They are not an indicator of a bold new vision for the Harvard Chaplains. They get selected because they are trusted and competent members of our group.
The mission of Epstein’s chaplaincy is not to convince people to become atheists but rather to serve students who find themselves without faith (of which there are many at Harvard). He actively pursues our perspectives on matters pertaining to the Harvard Chaplains. Although we disagree sharply on the things that matter most, he leans into those spaces, where people can differ on their strongly held beliefs. He thinks it’s important.
Epstein’s new role at Harvard has triggered a significant amount of outrage among Christians. I can empathize with many of the concerns, especially given how TheNew York Times failed to provide full context for the story. But even in this divisive media environment, we would do well to imitate our Father, who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ex. 34:6, NCB).
Underneath the overreaching headline is a model of how evangelicals can flourish in interfaith spaces and do so without compromise. It’s a model evangelicals would do well to emulate rather than condemn.