In his recent column (“It’s time to rethink role of campus chaplain,” 1/17), Rabbi James Ponet assumes that Rev. Jerry Streets’ replacement “shall be a Protestant pastor who will make Christianity palatable to a student and faculty congregation.” Ponet counters the Yale Chaplaincy Search Committee’s unstated desire, which he infers from its “Goals for the Position,” for a University Chaplain who will double as Battell Chapel’s pastor. He proposes that the committee instead consider a non-Protestant as Chaplain, and in fact goes further, suggesting an omni-lingual, ultra-literate, unordained activist who is versed in every religion and “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.’ ” As for me, I think it would be hilarious to have a chaplain who was 12 feet tall and could kill with a determined stare. I’m pretty sure, though, that neither idea is suited for the spiritual progress of the Yale community.
I’m actually surprised that a rabbi could seriously advocate a non-rabbi for the position of Yale’s religious leader, much less some dilettante possessed of nebulous “spiritual vision and social passion.” Now, if you haven’t twigged to it yet, I’m not a religious guy. I spent my time in religious school drawing monsters, superheroes and monsters eating superheroes — I wasn’t particularly consumed with reverence. At the same time, while my eternal soul may be in dire jeopardy, at least the consistency of my logic isn’t. (Phew.)
Ponet, on the other hand, seems to agree with Gandhi and his superman chaplain regarding the truth and equality of the world’s religions; all three, then, subscribe to what Roman Catholicism calls “religious indifferentism” (instead of my plain “indifference”). Ultimately, religion is about recognizing absolute truth, whether it’s the teachings of Jesus Christ, Muhammad or Siddartha. But here’s the trick: You have to pick one truth. After all, the world’s faiths have teachings that are irreconcilable, from their broadest understandings of the universe to the minutiae of ritual. It’s impossible to hold that the tenets of your own religion are absolute truth while simultaneously entertaining another faith’s contradictory aspects as also correct. And if you don’t think your religion holds the best explanation, then why even bother? You might as well spend Sunday morning eating animal crackers and Facebooking yourself. When asked about Pope Benedict XVI’s critical remarks about Islam in a New York Times interview, John Ashcroft put it best: “If the pope thought the Muslim faith were better than the Catholic faith, he’d be a Muslim. To say that you have beliefs and that they are equal to everyone else’s beliefs all the time is to devalue the concept of belief.” Eat it, Gandhi!
Ponet’s assumptions about the committee’s ideal chaplain don’t come from its Web site; although it acknowledges Yale’s “founding by Christian ministers,” it otherwise repeatedly and explicitly allows for a non-Christian chaplain. I guess I agree most with Ponet’s straw man, then: I’m of the opinion that the University Chaplain should be an ordained Protestant minister. As noted by William F. Buckley Jr. in “God and Man at Yale,” this is a university “which was founded by [Protestant] churchmen, whose trustees for two hundred years were exclusively ministers of the gospel, whose corporation meetings are even today opened by prayer, whose every symbol commits it to furthering God’s fight.”
If Yale is going to have a non-Protestant chaplain, however, I’d at least hope that he’s a partisan. This chaplain should provide leadership and coordination to all Yale’s denominations and certainly shouldn’t disparage the infidels, but, in his soul, he should possess the confidence that his faith is better than theirs. Some hippie journeyman whose experience lies solely in “social passion” belongs at a service organization, not at the pulpit. And I’m sorry, but I can’t take a pastor seriously if he has devoted his life to a faith he considers merely equal to every other faith ever.
Ponet is right that Yale needs to have a serious discussion of what the University’s chaplaincy means. Is the University Chaplain just another Yale administrator, employed to facilitate the religiosity of others who actually believe things? Or is he the spiritual leader of the Yale community? And if he is, then shouldn’t he have somewhere to lead us? The chaplain ought to believe in something, not everything; otherwise, he’ll just lead us in every direction at once, and we’ll go nowhere.
Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.