It’s time to rethink role of campus chaplain

I sense that few, if any, students, faculty or staff at Yale know that a national search is underway for a successor to the outgoing University Chaplain, the Rev. Jerry Streets, who will have completed 15 years of loyal and distinguished service by the end of this semester. The Chaplain Search Committee, chaired by University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer and Divinity School Dean Harry Attridge, is now interviewing candidates — ministers, priests, rabbis and imams, many of them Yale alumni, from all over the United States.

I am certain the committee will ultimately find a good, capable person to become the next University Chaplain. I am equally certain that no one — on or off the search committee, here at Yale or at any other American institution of higher learning — really knows what the qualifications, role or purpose of a University Chaplain should be today.

To be sure, a job description exists. See, for example, www.yale.edu/chaplainsearch and read “Goals for the Position.” While the description found is vague and only partially coherent, the expectation seems clear enough: He or she shall be a Protestant pastor who will make Christianity palatable to a student and faculty congregation, and who will be a voice of comfort and counsel for the whole campus in times of trial. This is a worthy and important job, fully compatible with Yale’s historic mission of instructing youth to be “fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State,” and is one that should be filled.

However, I would suggest that there are other models that might be equally worthy and, possibly, more in sync with the needs and responsibilities of the globalizing, multi-faith institution of higher learning that Yale has become at the beginning of this 21st century.

The posted job description notes that “if the next Chaplain is not a Christian, he or she will be expected to designate a leader of the staff who can give strong leadership at Battell.” Battell Chapel, this posting implies, deserves and requires a first-rate pastor. I agree. But maybe the University deserves and requires a new kind of figure to serve as University Chaplain.

The pastor of Battell Chapel should, of course, be an ordained and experienced minister. But must a University Chaplain be ordained? Why can’t a woman or man who has worked for years in the fight for human rights or environmental policy or education reform, for example — a person of demonstrated spiritual vision and social passion — be considered an apt candidate for University Chaplain? Imagine such a person using the bully pulpit and the human and cultural resources of Yale to teach and preach and speak out religiously about the crises facing humanity today: poverty, violence, environmental degradation, genocide and hunger.

The pastor of Battell Chapel should be a master of the texts and commentaries of Christian revelation. But perhaps a University Chaplain should be possessive of a broader literacy. Maybe the chaplain, as the leading spokesman for religion in public life, should be familiar with the languages and literatures of all the world’s religions. Perhaps the chaplain should know Sanskrit and Arabic, be comfortable reciting the Upanishads and the Tao Teh Ching in addition to the Bible, be familiar with hadith as well as midrash, be engaged by yoga as well as by communion, be claimed by meditation as well as by prayer.

The pastor of Battell Chapel should be able to inspire vivid Protestant worship. But maybe the chaplain should be a passionate student of the world’s wisdom traditions, a devotee of what Gottfried Leibnitz in the 16th century and Aldous Huxley in the 20th dubbed the “perennial philosophy.” Imagine a University Chaplain claimed by a deep respect and love for all religions in their uniqueness and in their commonness. Imagine, for example, a person who could say with integrity, as did Mahatma Gandhi in 1934, that, “For me all the principal religions are equal in the sense that they are all true. They are supplying a felt want in the spiritual progress of humanity.”

At a time when many people believe we are engaged not only in a war against terror but in a religious or cultural war — a time when America, the most religiously diverse country in the world, appears to be undergoing another chaotic, passionate, searching “Great Awakening” — might it not be prudent to consider altering the structure and function of the University Chaplain at Yale? While the old model has worked well for 70 years, should we not, as a global community, give new thought to the question of the role of religion in education, politics and culture? Should we not address the ways religion seems both to protect and threaten — to elevate and denigrate — the human project? And should we not ask that our chaplain address these questions with us and for us in public forum and private encounter?

I call our community forth to a public discussion of these questions during this time of search.

Rabbi James M. Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale.

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