When I learned that Harvard had installed an atheist chaplain, I couldn’t help but wonder why--meaning, why and how can an atheist even represent as a chaplain?
First, let’s address atheism. TheOxford dictionary defines an atheist as...
a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.
Now, let’s see how Merriam Webster defines a chaplain...
1: a clergyman in charge of a chapel
2: a clergyman officially attached to a branch of the military, to an institution, or to a family or court
3: a person chosen to conduct religious exercises (as at a meeting of a club or society)
4: a clergyman appointed to assist a bishop (as at a liturgical function)
A second, related query I ran on Google, that apparently a large number of other users have also researched lately, is the role of a chaplain.
Simply stated, chaplains offer spiritual care in the clinical setting. "Spiritual care" has to do with issues of meaning, hope, and transcendence that are often more pronounced during illness, injury, birth and death.
And last, are chaplains religious?
This is what popped up (in Google search) first...
A chaplain is a certified clergy member who provides spiritual care for individuals in a non-religious organization, rather than a church congregation. Chaplains can work in government roles and serve members of the military in different locations.
They can serve patients in healthcare or hospice facilities.
From all this, it seems to be implied that (at least historically) a religious belief, of some sort, goes hand-in-hand with chaplaincy. And historically, chaplains have been of Christian faith.
Now we’re in an era where there’s wide-ranged global fluidity. It appears that chaplains can indeed be folks with no religious beliefs at all.
I was in college back in the 1980s. I lived off-campus, but near the university and within a little over an hour’s drive from home. I am now, and was then, of Christiain faith. During my time at that school, as well as the next one, I had no need of a Campus Chaplain. If the need had arisen, I’d have assumed our university chaplain would have been of Christian faith, simply because of the title.
The university had a diverse community of religions, including Muslims, Bhuddists, Bahá'ís (one of which was my roommate), Jews, Muslims and likely several more I haven’t listed. If there had been someone, the students of non-Christian faiths, could have gone to for counsel, they likely would have held a title as a counterpart, but one that reflected their beliefs, such as priest, monk, imam or rabbi. I didn't leave out the Bahá'í--they have no clergy. Most colleges and universities I’m familiar with have both a chaplain and an on-campus chapel, where Christian students gather for worship services, provided by the chaplain.
In light of Harvard’s appointment, I can only guesstimate that students of faith will need to go elsewhere for spiritual support and guidance that’s in accordance with their beliefs. However, the students are there to study and hopefully have a leader within their faith that they have easy access to for support, off-campus.
For me, I’m thankful to have had wonderful pastoral support from my own pastorate (meaning both my pastor and his wife). Even when far from home, during my second stint through college, they were available by phone, and always for visits when I was able to spend time with them, during breaks and holidays.
For students at Harvard, the school may not be staffed to provide spiritual guidance and support to faith-based students. Off campus tho, there are many possibilities in finding exactly the support and kinship they seek, within local congregations.
Past that, Harvard may be the dream of some, but it isn’t so for everyone. There are other schools, even other faith-based schools, with excellent credentials that provide a vast array of studies.
“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” C. S. Lewis
Remain in the Word. Remain encouraged.
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