In the News 9/14/21

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Harvard University

There’s been a lot of news recently. It’s hard to keep up. Here are some stories related to the faith life of the nation that caught my eye.

Harvard names atheist president of chaplains. Harvard University was founded in 1636 to provide clergy for the growing Puritan colony in Massachusetts. The college adopted the motto “Truth for Christ and the Church” in 1692. Somewhere along the line, Harvard changed its motto to simply, “Truth” and it is no longer associated with any religious denomination, Puritan or otherwise. That point was made abundantly clear last month when Harvard chose Greg Epstein as its new president of the Harvard chaplains. Epstein describes himself as a “Humanist Rabbi” and an atheist. Epstein was ordained a Humanist Rabbi by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in 2005, and holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Epstein is the author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, and feels that his role is to be available to students who want to talk about how to be a good person without God. Epstein says, “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.” In an interview with the New York Times, the new president of the Harvard chaplains said, “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.” That’s an interesting notion, considering that the ethical life Epstein champions without God is almost certainly the ethical life inspired by the Judeo-Christian tradition. What so many moderns conveniently forget is how much their understanding of what is good and moral is founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic. Almost universally, the ethical life prior to the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition meant sacrificing innocents, mutilating enemies without mercy, little to no consideration for the concerns or needs of others outside one’s own tribe, revenge as the only understanding of justice, chattel slavery for prisoners of war, the rape and degradation of women and children, and taking what you want from whom you want so long as you proved the stronger. Might made right, no questions asked. Critics, of course, will say that Jews and Christians themselves often practiced such atrocities. What they forget is that, when Jews and Christians practiced such atrocities, they did so contrary to their own religious ethical tradition, which is why they were and are so fiercely and justifiably criticized for their sins. But, the pre-Christian tribes of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, even the most enlightened ones, practiced such barbarities precisely within their religious, socio-cultural traditions, not contrary to them. Furthermore, the great atheist powers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (USSR, Nazi Germany, Communist China, the Khmer Rouge) weren’t exactly what most would call regimes sympathetic to human rights, freedoms, and what Rabbi Epstein likely identifies as the ethical life. Nico Quesada, marketing and media director at the Harvard Catholic Center, cleared up confusion over some articles identifying Epstein as the “chief chaplain” at Harvard. According to Quesada, there is no “chief chaplain” at Harvard. “His role is not as the chief chaplain,” Quesada explained, “It is actually as the president of the Harvard Chaplains.” Quesada explained that the role is entirely administrative, is part-time, is a one-year term, and is rotated among the 40 chaplains at Harvard. Even still, Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire evangelization ministry, isn’t impressed. In an op ed published in the New York Post, Bishop Barron chastises the chaplains at Harvard who nominated, then unanimously approved Epstein as president of the Harvard chaplains. What upsets Bishop Barron so is, “the complete and abject surrender on the part of the presumably religious leaders at Harvard who chose this man. If a professed atheist counts as a chaplain — which is to say, a leader of religious services in a chapel — then ‘religion’ has quite obviously come to mean nothing at all.” Bishop Barron points to a long evolution of the idea, beginning with philosophers Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher, that religion has less to do with doctrines and more to do with living a moral life. This is what I call the “salvation by nice” theology. Bishop Barron will have none of it. “My point,” the bishop writes, “is that the relativizing of doctrine has led, by steady steps through two centuries, to the situation at Harvard today: Even that most elemental of doctrines — belief in God — doesn’t matter. One can still, evidently, be perfectly ‘religious’ without it. But this is so much nonsense.” Bishop Barron finishes: “I’m sure Epstein is a nice fellow. I have nothing against him. But I do want to urge his presumably religious colleagues at Harvard who elected him: Show a little self-respect. Being a chaplain has something to do with the worship of God — and you shouldn’t be ashamed to say it.” Bravo!

Evangelical Lutheran Church installs first transgender bishop. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), after electing Megan Rohrer, former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in San Francisco, bishop back in May of this year, installed her as bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod this past weekend. Rohrer, a biological female who identifies as male and uses the pronouns “he” and “they” is married to another woman and has two children. She will oversee 200 churches in northern California and northern Nevada. In the ceremony held at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Rohrer said, “My call is … to be up to the same messy, loving things I was up to before. … But mostly, if you’ll let me, and I think you will, my hope is to love you and beyond that, to love what you love.” Sounds like the vague, mushy pablum we’ve come to expect from the Christian heterodox more concerned with making people feel good about themselves than in challenging people to embrace and live the gospel of Jesus Christ. ‘Nuff said.

Fired for promoting COVID vaccine. Daniel Darling, senior vice president of communications for the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), was fired on August 27 for speaking to why his faith led him to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. The NRB is an international association of Christian communicators with 1100 member organizations. According to the article in The Baptist Standard, on a broadcast of the Morning Joe program on August 2, Darling spoke of the vaccine as “an amazing feat of discovery by scientists, some of whom share his Christian faith.” Darling told Scarbrough, “I believe in this vaccine, because I don’t want to see anyone else die of COVID.” He explained, “Our family has lost too many close friends and relatives to COVID, including an uncle, a beloved church member, and our piano teacher.” This was too much for the NRB, apparently, whose official policy is neutrality on the COVID-19 vaccine. Darling was informed that he had two options: either sign a statement agreeing that he had been insubordinate, or be fired. Darling refused to sign, so he was fired with no severance. This seems on odd position for an association of communicators. Rather than adopting an official policy of remaining neutral on the COVID-19 vaccine, I would think that an association of communicators, in particular an association of Christian communicators, would encourage robust discussion on the matter. Rather than shutting down communication on the vaccine, why not encourage more communication on the vaccine? Why insist that members keep quiet about one of the more important matters in our society today? Are they trying to avoid controversy? Good luck with that! They just bought themselves a whole heap of controversy by firing a brother Christian simply for expressing his views on the COVID-19 vaccine. He didn’t belittle or insult those who choose not to get vaccinated. He simply explained why he chose to, in the context of his faith. It seems extreme and unjust that a Christian association would take away a man’s livelihood for doing something so reasonable. The matter of the vaccines is only one more item in a long list that has divided this nation. Unfortunately, it’s divided Christians, too. That is a fact, and the NRB can’t avoid that, no matter how hard they may try.

Bishop orders clergy to announce their vaccination status. Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington in Kentucky has ordered all priests and deacons to announce to their congregations if they are unvaccinated. As well, those priests and deacons who are not vaccinated will not be allowed to visit the sick or elderly homebound. No word yet on whether the unvaccinated clerics of Lexington will be required to wear bells around their necks and shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn unsuspecting parishioners of their approach. Seriously, this is just too much. Anyone who reads this blog knows I am a fierce advocate of people getting the COVID-19 vaccine. I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the fact that the current surge of COVID patients is a surge of unvaccinated patients, so much so that, if everyone got vaccinated, this surge would not be happening. Hospitals are running out of resources, staff are perpetually overwhelmed, understaffed, and exhausted. Get vaccinated! But, I am not a supporter of mandates, and this is an utterly unsubtle attempt on the part of Bishop Stowe to humiliate those of his priests and deacons who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to get vaccinated, all while the Church has repeatedly insisted that Catholics have a right to choose not to be vaccinated. Now, I happen to agree with Bishop Stowe’s decision to not allow unvaccinated clergy to visit the sick or the elderly homebound. These are two populations at increased risk of catching COVID and of experiencing serious consequences from the virus. But, that’s a policy that can be implemented quietly, without announcing anything to the public. Bishop Stowe might consider, too, that this policy may backfire. If parishioners are sitting on the fence about getting vaccinated, and they learn that the pastor they respect has chosen not to get vaccinated, that may cause their scale to tip toward not getting vaccinated themselves. It’s also a matter of respect. When did it become the public’s business to know the health information of individuals? Why would a bishop demand that of his priests and deacons? What’s next? Demanding that every cleric of his diocese make a public announcement each time they have a meningitis or some other communicable disease? Will every priest and deacon be expected to reveal their childhood immunization status when they arrive at a new assignment, or the results of his most recent physical? COVID is being manipulated by people to cause great division in our society. We don’t need shenanigans like this making matters worse.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

One thought on “In the News 9/14/21

  1. Bob, Liked and agree with your post, with the exception of the final paragraph. I think the Bishop was right. Maybe you are correct in your assessment that it may tip the scale in favor of not getting vaccinated or embarrass the individual priests, but if I were in a high risk population, I would want to know if my Priest is a further risk to me, my family and friends. In addition, I don’t necessarily trust individual priests to inform their congregation for the good of the Church. (I don’t know but I haven’t asked either, what the vaccination status is of my priests, nor have they shared that with us voluntarily). Given the close interaction that priest may have in communicating the sacraments, I think we should know…just my opinion…dd

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