The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

It’s Wednesday, September 1st, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


Part I

An Atheist Is Now Harvard’s Head Chaplain: Harvard University as a Parable of Theological Collapse and the Secularization of the Academy

The Puritan settlers of New England were very concerned that their children and their children’s children would not have a learned clergy to preach the word of God. Therefore, those Puritans established a college, it was known as Harvard College. It was established in the year 1636, now nearing 400 years ago. And as you go on the campus of what is now Harvard University, you may enter through what is known as the Johnson Gate and that gate includes an inscription. The inscription is called the First Fruits of New England, and what it refers to is the fact that in the very first harvest, in the very first years of the settling of Puritan New England, those clergyman and Christians believed that it was necessary to establish a college in order that their children and their grandchildren would have a learned ministry, a scholarly pastorate. There would be preachers and teachers of the word of God who would be skilled in the handling of God’s word so they made as their determination that before they should go to the dust, they should establish this college for the training of the ministry.

Now that was 1636. This is 2021. The headlines that have come recently from Harvard University include, as the New York Times reported quote, “Harvard’s chief chaplain is an atheist.” Now that article is pointing to a development that doesn’t come just out of the blue. For one thing, Greg Epstein, who is the atheist, who is now the president of the chaplains at Harvard University, he didn’t just come to Harvard. He has been there since the year 2005. I responded to him in an article as far back as 2007 but we’re looking at the fact that he is now the chief of the chaplains, the president of the group of chaplains and that’s headline news. It deserves to be headline news but it’s important to recognize that this doesn’t come out of the blue. This comes out of a process, a long trajectory.

And behind this is the story of the secularization of American higher education. American higher education, the academic space, certainly the elite academic space in the United States and there is no institution more elite than Harvard University, it is now a pervasively secularized space. Indeed it is an aggressively secularized space. Theology has been basically pushed not only to the margins but into disrepute. The orthodox Christian convictions that were the very essence of the establishment of the school have been replaced with a new orthodoxy. It is a very aggressive new secular orthodoxy.

The headlines in the major media about the elevation of Greg Epstein, an atheist, to the role as the chief of the chaplains, it’s big news precisely because the mainstream media know in the background to this headline is fact that this is a transformation. In one sense, it is a final capstone of a transformation and that transformation is extremely important for Christians, as we seek to understand the world around us and in particular, the formative influence of higher education in the United States.

When you think about Harvard, you understand that this institution, since 1636, has basically been a pacesetter for American higher education. A part of what is now known as the elite Ivy League, it is perhaps the strongest brand in higher education in the United States. At the very least, it would have very few rivals. But Harvard is distinctive in other ways as well. It is for example, the first institution with an endowed chair, an endowed professorship, in the history of the United States. That professorship is known as the Hollis Chair of Divinity and it was named for a clergyman and the purpose of the endowment was to make certain that if there were no other teaching positions at Harvard College, there would be a position teaching divinity. That is the things of God, training the pastors and training the young men of New England in the truth of the gospel and the truth of God’s word.

It is interesting by the way, that in the original terms of the endowment, given by the donors for the Hollis Chair of Divinity, it states that the incumbent of that chair, the professor who holds that position, is not only to be paid a salary but he also has the right to graze cattle on Harvard Yard. Back in the last decades of the 20th century, one of the more modern incumbents in that chair decided that he would make the point by bringing a cow onto Harvard Yard. It is after all in his contract.

But even as the Hollis Chair of Divinity continues there at Harvard, the reality is that Harvard becomes a symbol. It becomes a case study, a lesson for us in understanding what has happened to higher education in the United States. I mentioned that the one word that is most significant is secular or secularization. It is the process whereby an institution that was established in theological terms now basically has eradicated theology from any meaningful presence on the campus. It might have a symbolic presence, there are after all those endowed professorships and funds but the reality is, if you say elite higher education in the United States, you are saying secular. And again, it is an unconditional secularism in the main. But that doesn’t mean that Harvard doesn’t have chaplains. It doesn’t even mean that it doesn’t have a divinity school. It has both but the secularization nonetheless is now the hallmark of the institution.

And by the way, that also points to the fact that in the view of millions of Americans, the only authentic education to which an individual should aspire is one that has been secularized. The authority of God, the authority of theology, the authority of the church, effectively neutralized. This is space unthreatened by theology now. But it’s important to recognize that secularization doesn’t come out of a vacuum. Something had to happen before a secular transformation and that was the transformation to theological liberalism. And at Harvard that came very, very early. Earlier than most people might imagine.

The orthodox Puritan theology that was the very essence, the foundation of the establishment of Harvard was rather shortly eclipsed by not only a theological liberalism in general but by Unitarianism in particular. Now Unitarianism is not just a code word for theological compromise. Unitarianism involves the direct rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. Unitarianism has generally also come with the teaching that emphasizes the humanity of Christ at the expense of his deity. Now there’s a sense in which all theological liberalism trends in that more Unitarian direction but Harvard really went into a Unitarian phase rather early.

By the time you get just a few decades into the life of Harvard College, you’re looking at an institution that is certainly trending towards a far more liberal theology and even Unitarianism. And by the way, Yale was established in order that there would be a conservative, Orthodox Christian alternative to Harvard that was considered to be, and rightly considered to be, already lost. As a Christian theologian, I just want to remind us all that secularization cannot happen in a vacuum. There has to be some halfway house on the way to this kind of secular moment, this kind of secularized context. That halfway house is the redefinition of classical Christian doctrines into liberal theology. And furthermore, the denial of the authority of scripture and the authority of the church and the authority of Christian theology to set the terms of intellectual conversation. All that has to happen and then you have the possibility of a secularized space.

But one of the points we need to understand clearly is that in reality, the jump from a space of theological liberalism to a space of secularism is not that big a jump. Emma Goldberg reporting on this story for the New York Times tells us that Greg Epstein, 44 years old and author of the book Good Without God is “a seemingly unusual choice for the role, that is as the chief of chaplains there at Harvard. And she goes on to say, “He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains who head the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus.” Yet we are told, “Many Harvard students, some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities, attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.”

Mr. Epstein himself, who was raised in a Jewish household, he’s been at as what he prefers to call a humanist chaplain since 2005. He said, “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.” Now, it’s interesting to note that nearly four centuries after the establishment of Harvard, Harvard now has an atheist head chaplain. And so an institution that was established on the basis of Puritan theology and Orthodox Christianity, now has as its chief spiritual counselor for students and the university, a man who is an atheist but who prefers to describe himself as a humanist. His book published several years ago is entitled, Good Without God, and that pretty much makes the point that he is trying to make in his ministry, in his chaplaincy there at Harvard.

An interesting statement came from a Christian science chaplain on the Harvard campus who pointed out that perhaps in a more conservative university, there might be a question like, why in the world would Harvard appoint an atheist as a chaplain? But as Margit Hammerstrom said, “In this environment, it works. Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths,” end quote. Trying to explain the significance of this and why the New York Times would run a six column article, Goldberg goes on to write, “The dozens of students whom Mr. Epstein mentors have found a source of meaning in the school’s organization of humanists, atheists and agnostics, reflecting a broader trend of young people across the United States who increasingly identify as spiritual but religiously non-affiliated.” The article goes on, “That trend might be especially salient at Harvard. A Harvard Crimson survey of the class of 2019 found that those students were two times more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic than the 18-year-olds in the general population.” Really, really interesting.

Here we have self-designation, self-reporting but that’s the basis of the other studies as well. And here we are told that students, undergraduates at Harvard, are more than two times more likely to be atheist or agnostic than the 18-year-olds at other colleges and universities in the general population. Now again, that’s extremely significant. It is not accidental. It’s not incidental. That tells you that the experience behind so many of the students who end up being admitted to, accepted to and enrolled in Harvard University, they tend to represent a very secular stream. They likely come from very secular sectors of the society and they’re being grounded in an extremely secular worldview. The other thing Christians need to understand is that higher education is not only aspirational for individuals, it is aspirational for institutions. Other institutions look to schools such as Harvard in order to gain cues of how they should organize themselves in order to advance in academic rank and in academic respect in a secular academy.

It’s also interesting that a statement was made by 20-year-old student, Charlotte Nickerson, speaking of the atheist chaplain, she said, “Greg’s leadership isn’t about theology, it’s about cooperation between people of different faiths and bringing together people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious.” That too is just incredibly revealing. Far more than this young student probably understands her statement to be. Considered this. If you are talking about the fact that the essence of this program isn’t theology but rather it’s about reaching those who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious, it tells you something else, that’s just a part of the landscape of the world around us. There are many religious institutions, there are many so called religious professionals who are trying to figure out how to maintain some kind of viable existence when people no longer believe in God.

Why in the world would you have a chaplain if you no longer believe in God? Why, if you are in charge of a secular space, would you have chaplains? Now again, one reason is because of endowed funds that go back in history but the other reason is the human realities continue. And as I will argue in any context the theological issues continue to press on and this is an attempt to try to respond to those very basic questions with very secular answers and very secular counseling. Later in the article, this undergraduate students said, “I find I’m more fluid in my spiritual conversations now.” That word “fluid” is also very illuminating.

An article by Hannah Frishberg in the New York Post cites the new chaplain head as saying, quote, “We don’t look to God for answers, we are each other’s answers,” end quote. As the Post went on to report, “Harvard’s liberal values and desire to prioritize engagement over tradition made Epstein a great fit for the job.” Indeed, his election was unanimous. His election by the other chaplains.

An article about Epstein’s elevation in the Boston Globe also included this statement from the chief chaplain, “It’s a milestone of inclusion. It marks that people who have serious disagreements around important things can also have serious cooperation and real love and mutual respect that is bigger than their difference.” The word inclusion jumps out there. And just notice it’s really not as inclusive as the word inclusion might normally indicate because we’re talking here about a space in which the one thing that now doesn’t fit is orthodox Christianity. When you use a word like inclusion in this context, you need to note that you have already passed a Rubicon of sorts. You’re already on the other side of a wall, you’ve crossed a road. And on the other side, it makes perfect sense to have a humanist or an atheist head of the chaplaincy program in the name of inclusion.

I would think it would be very interesting to go back to 1636 and try to make that case. The founders of Harvard could not even have imagined such a situation. The fact that it’s now real in the 21st century tells us of the enormous shifts in worldview, the enormous transformation of theology, the enormous social shift of secularization that has so reshaped the entire landscape around us.

A similar article in the Guardian from London reporting on the atheist chaplaincy there at Harvard, it included a statement from Epstein that said, “I want to be a positive force against the vision of Harvard that some people have as an institution of privilege and prestige over justice and equity. We want them to feel regardless of their beliefs that Harvard is equal for them and that the better world we are all trying to build at Harvard involves justice and equity for people like them.” Marginalized minorities is the phrase that is used in this particular article in the Guardian but I just want to point out that if the category of privilege means anything, it means Harvard University. If there is any institution that represents that kind of class privilege, it is Harvard University. To argue that somehow it can be something other than what it is at the very same time that the university is doing its utmost to make sure that it remains as privileged as ever, is one of the stark ironies of our morally confused time.

But the ultimate irony is the story itself, the fact that the chaplain head there at Harvard is now an atheist or by his own self designation, a humanist. In any event, this development tells us that the irony of American history is now the irony of the abdication of faith, the loss of theology, the evaporation of theological conviction and the presence, the overwhelming presence, of secularism as the dominant ideology of higher education in the United States. It is also an irony of our time that even the most secular of institutions still has chaplains. And be assured of this, even though Harvard now has an atheist chaplain, this is not where the story will end. There are new chapters to the story to be told yet, of that you can be certain.

Part II

The Incredible Reach of Popular Culture: ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Will Air First Same-Sex Dance Pair — And Expects You to Join the Celebration

But now we’re going to turn to another interesting new chapter in American popular culture. You’ve been waiting for this. The announcement has now come from several sources in the mainstream media that the program Dancing With the Stars is now going to feature the first competitor to have a same-sex dancing partner. And of course the interesting thing here is not so much that this has happened, whether you frankly care about Dancing With the Stars or not, but the fact that the mainstream media think that this is big. It’s really a big development. This must be very big news. Another barrier has been broken, another milestone has been reached. Another taboo has now been normalized. Now you can have competitors on Dancing With the Stars who are dancing with partners of the same sex.

Predictably, USA Today thinks this is very big news that you ought to care very much about. A rather significant headline, “Siwa, Same-Sex Partner Make DWTS”—that’s Dancing With the Stars—”history.” Bryan Alexander is the reporter for USA Today. We’re told JoJo Siwa is already proving a groundbreaking force on Dancing With the Stars even before stepping on the dance floor on September the 20th. The TikTok and YouTube superstar, age 18, who came out as a member of the LGBTQ community in January will compete with a female professional partner. The same-sex pairing, says USA Today, “will be a first for ABC’s ballroom dance competition, which premiered in 2005, and marks its 30th season this fall.”

Siwa told USA Today, “We’re making history. This has never happened on Dancing With the Stars before. It’s always been a boy girl couple.” Who would have thought? USA Today is quick to tell us that same sex partners have competed in international versions of the show. The dance pro who will be dancing with Siwa, we are told, is not yet revealed, but Siwa said that the same-sex partner idea “came up during initial discussions with Dancing With the Stars producers.” Siwa, we are told, who is from Omaha, Nebraska is dating Kylie Prew. “I have a girlfriend who is the love of my life and who was everything to me. My journey of coming out and having a girlfriend has inspired so many people around the world. I thought that if I chose to dance with a girl on this show, it would break the stereotypical thing. It would be new, different and change for the better.”

And there’s a moral messaging here that Siwa wants to promote, “I said I would actually love and prefer to dance with a girl. Why not show the message even stronger that you can love whomever you want to love.” Now, the point I want to make is that in the grand scale of world events, this is about a dancing show on television. This is about just a little tiny spot to popular culture. What does that tell you? It tells you the popular culture is far more influential than you might’ve thought.

It’s not just that. It is also the fact that even if popular culture were not so important to this story, the fact is that you have media sources such as USA Today, that would report basically on a couple of crickets dancing if they could prove they were of the same sex. It doesn’t take a major cultural development. USA Today has now become the hair trigger in the media for announcing that the next new big thing has happened, the next new moral wall has fallen. Human liberation is at hand and now you’re going to have two women dancing on the program, Dancing With the Stars. Go erect a monument in a hurry.

Part III

What Does ‘Impossible Meat’ CEO Teach Us About Worldview? Collapse of Distinction between Human Creature and the Animals Leads to Inevitable Moral Confusion

But finally, worldview issues show up in so many interesting places. One of them I recently noted was a business profile in the New York Times. The profile was of Ethan Brown, the CEO of the company known as Beyond Meat. The subhead in the article says, “His passion for animals and the environment led him to create plant-based meat products that are not only less harmful to the climate but also better for our health.” The article tells us that Brown became a vegetarian when he was in high school. He started the company beyond meat in 2009 and the Times tells us he took the company public in 2019. “In recent years, the market for plant based meat has boomed with other companies such as Impossible Foods competing for customers. Last year, Beyond Meat sold some 73 million pounds of product.”

But the article also tells us, “As the industry grows, it is coming under fire from the conventional meat industry, which is raising concerns about what it calls ultra-processed imitations.” But in worldview analysis, what’s most interesting in this article is that Brown says his motivation for creating this alternative to meat and founding the company Beyond Meat is that, “He would rather not be responsible for the deaths of animals.” “If you say I want to inflict pain and take someone else’s body, that is not something I want to do.”

As a high schooler, he tells us he had problems understanding why he ate a pig and not a dog. He said, “I had trouble making a distinction between my dog and a pig. The vegan thing came from that.” In the interview with the New York Times, Brown said, “You can talk for hours about why it makes sense for us to eat meat. We’ve always done it. Everyone else in the animal kingdom does it but you have this unavoidable thing, you’re causing pain. Do you want to do that?” He then goes on to ask the question, “What’s the difference between an animal and a person?” He says to me, “The one difference that I can understand is that we can understand the consequences of our actions while my dog can’t make sense of inflicting pain on another animal. I certainly can.”

Now as time comes to a close for today’s edition of The Briefing, I just want to point out that that is a very, very important statement. This man says that the question as to what’s different between an animal and the person comes down to what he can answer only in terms of the self-consciousness when it comes to the consequences of our actions. The point is this, if your answer to that question, what’s the difference between a human being and an animal is any function, is any capacity, is any awareness, no matter how morally freighted that awareness might be, then you are going to collapse the entire category of human dignity. In other words, if you ground human dignity in anything other than the image of God, then you’re going to eventually have to decide how you would define a human being over against animal? How could you make the distinction?

This man is honest enough and we should admire his honesty to say he doesn’t really have a good answer to that question other than the human awareness of the consequences of our actions. By the way, though unacknowledged, his answer at least points to the imago Dei, by speaking of that human awareness of the consequences of our actions because God made us in his image as unavoidably moral creatures in a way that the animals are not. As I often point out on The Briefing, it is the confusion of categories that lies at so much of the modern confusion, the collapse of the distinction between the human creature and all other creatures is absolutely essential, not just to the Christian worldview but to maintaining moral sense in this world.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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