So that’s the job of a chaplain?
Very, very much. And to relate scholarship to faith. Religion in the academic world is not so much challenged as it is ignored, aside from the horrors of fundamentalism. So the important thing is to push the questions very hard.
One of your predecessors at Riverside, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preached a sermon on "Why Fundamentalism Must Fail." It didn't fail, and his sermon seems more relevant than ever.
Intolerance in theology leads to intolerance in behavior, and we’re back again to self-righteousness. I’m very much in favor of doctrine, but doctrines are signposts. Love is a hitching post. If we get that wrong, we’re in real trouble.
So we have to recover the Bible, but we also have to recover from it. The Bible supports polygamy, supports slavery, it says don’t eat barbecued ribs--that’s a Torah abomination, just like sleeping with another man. Most Southern fundamentalists I know believe in barbecue ribs.
These days, campuses are very concerned with religious pluralism. How does a true Christian operate in a pluralistic world?
To say, "I thank you Lord that I am not as the others are" precludes the possibility of humility or the capacity for self-criticism. It destroys the possibility of solidarity. This pertains in international relationships, and the same is true of interfaith relations. If I say, "I thank you, Lord, that my Christian faith is not as other faiths are," I’ve destroyed the possibility of self-criticism and humility. How can I even claim the name of the Christian without the humility?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was quite a great mentor to me and good friend. He said, "The starting point for all interfaith relationship is faith. Otherwise we compromise what’s different between us for the sake of convenience. That will never work." Now, my Christian faith is deeply rooted but the point of having roots is to grow branches. I should branch out to Jews whose branches are deeply rooted in their faith, likewise through Islam and so forth. The impulse to love God and love the neighbor is as much at the heart of Judaism and Islam as it is at the heart of Christianity.
I think being a Christian is a position of aspiration, not a fixed position. When you say you’re not sure where you’re going in the ministry, I say "Thank God." Avoid premature closure. I think becoming a Christian is the best that we could hope for. And if I’m saved it’s because there’s more mercy in God than sin in me.
I hope to have the humility to recognize that guilt is the last stronghold of pride. Forgiveness from you, for me to accept it, is for me to allow you to do for me what I can’t do for myself. Likewise, God’s forgiveness is for God to do for me what I cannot do for myself. That’s a central point of all religious life. We have to get strength beyond our own, a capacity to love beyond our own.
What about heaven and hell?
They’re both very powerful symbols of life with God and life alienated from God. In that sense, heaven and hell begin right now on earth. I do believe in an afterlife, not with intellectual certainty, but with a kind of psychological certitude or spiritual certitude, because I believe that God goes from God, in God, to God again. Having caught on a little to what love is all about, it would be too bad not to go on with that kind of relationship and knowledge. But basically that’s in God’s hands. If I know who’s there I don’t have to know what’s there.
Do you believe everyone’s there?
That’s a mystery. Do I know where Saddam Hussein is going? That would be presumptuous, just like it’s presumptuous to say, after the terrible train wreck, God saved my life. Well, why didn’t God save her life, his life, that kid...
You preached a sermon to that effect when your son died...
After my son Alex was killed in Boston, a very nice woman came with arms full of cheeses or something, very thoughtful, but as she started off to the kitchen, she said, "I never could understand God’s will." I set off in pursuit of her and said, "Listen, lady, what makes you think it's worth the will of God? Nobody knows enough to say that." I said in the sermon, "My solace lies not in the fact that it was the will of God, but because I believe God’s heart was the first of all the hearts to break."
That was the core of the sermon that has meant so much to a lot of people. They realize that God’s will is not that somebody die, that God doesn't go around with his finger on triggers, or his hands on the controls of airplanes.