by Pastor Doug Kings

Harvard University recently named Greg Epstein as its new chief chaplain. This rated a front-page story in The New York Times because Epstein, author of the best-selling book Good Without God, is an atheist. “How does that work?” you might well ask.

Harvard has more than 40 university chaplains, relating to the various religious and spiritual traditions represented in its student body. Epstein, who was raised Jewish, has served since 2005 as Harvard’s humanist chaplain. Now he has been elected (unanimously) by the chaplains’ association to be their next president. Lutheran chaplain and ELCA pastor, Kathleen Reed, headed the nominating committee. “We’re presenting to the university a vision,” Reed told the Times, “of how the world could work when diverse traditions focus on how to be good humans and neighbors.”

The irony (and no doubt some would say blasphemy) of this is that Harvard was founded by New England Puritans in the early 1600s, not just as a college, but as a school specifically to train new clergy. It was named after a pastor, John Harvard, and its original motto was “Truth for Christ and the Church.” The school soon grew beyond its original purpose and, obviously, beyond its founders’ worldview.

That Harvard could even have something called a “humanist chaplain” would be confounding to many. But this simply reflects Harvard’s awareness of a reality I’ve noted many times: the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious”. As the NYT article says, more than 20% of US adults identify as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious, which rises to 40% among Millennials. And as I reported earlier, this spring Gallup said that for the first time less than half the population say they belong to some type of religious community.

The popularity of chaplain Epstein and his book, however, show that regardless of attitudes or beliefs about God, a spiritual dimension to life remains important to many people, including the young. To the traditionally religious, the notion of spirituality without God seems like an oxymoron. But I think it’s that word “God” that trips us up.

It’s easy to assume that when we talk about God, everyone listening knows what we mean by God and that they agree with what we mean. Yet bring up that question explicitly—“What do you mean by ‘God’?”—and you will quickly learn otherwise. Not only do people of different religion have different ideas about God but so do people within a religion. Ask a group of Christians that question and you will likely be astonished at the variety of answers you get.

The late theologian Marcus Borg taught religion at a secular school, Oregon State University. A surprisingly large number of students who described themselves as atheists took his courses. Often at some point in the term, they would question him about the existence of God. “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” Borg would ask. After hearing their description, he would almost always respond, to their consternation, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either.”

The God of ancient and medieval Christianity ostensibly lived in a heavenly realm above earth’s sky. That notion was dashed centuries ago, of course, when science began to discern the true nature of the Universe. Yet Christian theology has never replaced it with a similarly satisfactory idea.

After centuries of Christian armies fighting those of “pagans”, in the modern world supposedly Christian nation-states have mostly fought each other. Lincoln was not the first—or last—to wonder how God handled prayers coming from both sides of a conflict asking for his blessing and protection. Was this a God who chose sides?

Several prominent intellectuals loudly condemned religion of all kinds twenty years ago after 9/11 and many agreed with them. Assuming God blessed either the horrific actions of the terrorists or the slaughter that followed in response, was just too much for many to swallow. In fact, to many it was the belief in God itself that was fueling and instigating the conflict and violence. The claiming of God’s support for various political factions in this country in recent years has also left many people frustrated and angry. Who needs such a God?

It’s not coincidental that the rise of the spiritual/not religious has occurred in this same time. Questions of origins, meaning, and values are universal; asking them is an essential part of being human. The traditional theistic religions, however, all seem to be failing in supporting millions of people in answering such questions. Worse, to many these religions seem to be spinning crazily out of control.

Epstein wrote his book, Good Without God, specifically to counter the anti-religious anger of the post-9/11 “new atheists.” He believed that regardless of one’s view of God, the great human questions and values could be and should be examined and lived peacefully, within human community. It seems that his more traditionally religious Harvard colleagues see value in his approach and his contribution to the human spiritual task. I suspect that the “God-beyond-God”, the God who in God’s mystery is beyond human ideas of God, may very well agree.

Blessings in your life and ministry.