The Good Shepherd Vs The Humanist Chaplain
November 6, 2014
Ever since I read about Bart Campolo’s announcement that he is an atheist and how he wants to give his life in service to others as a humanist chaplain, I have been perplexed about this vocation. I knew what a humanist was, but couldn’t quite wrap my head around a humanist chaplain. In fact, before recording the MoS podcast, I had to look it up.
Upon Googling the term, the first article that popped up, “What is a Humanist Chaplain,” directed me to The Humanist Chaplaincy Network. The definition just affirmed my perplexity:
Humanism is the belief that you can live a good life without god. It is the belief that we only have one life and that we should make the most of it, for ourselves, and for our fellow human beings. Humanists make sense of the world by means of reason and evidence while rejecting superstition. Humanists have a positive outlook on life, guided by rational thought and focus on the importance of human cooperation and compassion for solving problems.
The Humanist Chaplain provides pastoral care based on Humanist principles. The Humanist Chaplain gives information, advice, and consultation about existential problems.
Sure, I have issues with the very first sentence. Only God (capitol “G”) is good. And here’s the problem, how then can a Humanist Chaplain provide pastoral care? His advice must be based off of the belief that humans are able to live a good life without “god.” And since you have to make the most out of this one life, how do you shepherd someone who is chronically ill, lost the love of their life, or is struggling to find meaning and value in their mediocre lifestyle? What good do they point them to?
It may be easy to borrow some of the ethics of Christianity and claim them for yourself when things are looking up. Go ahead and whip up your own version of potluck dinners, community, love, service, and all that good stuff, but you can’t even sing Kumbaya, “come by here,” on the good days. And I can only imagine the despair that looking to myself for good must lead to on the good days, much less when the trials hit. How do you pastor without Christ?
I was thinking even more about this today as I was reading Psalm 23. Being in tune to the people in his church, Pastor Francis VanDelden interrupted his series on Zechariah this past Sunday to preach on Psalm 23. He explained that various families were going through trials and this was a passage that his congregation needed encouragement from. This is the well-known Psalm about the Good Shepherd.
You see, a Christian pastor doesn’t draw from his own goodness. He points us to the Good Shepherd and consoles us in the provision of the Lord who leads us to green pastures. Even the title of this sermon, “Shepherding Me To Higher Ground” contrasts the Christian life of hope and holiness to the humanist chaplain’s, “Your Best Life Now” message (I know, sound familiar?). As badly as Campolo may think he wants to give of his own life in service, he could never truly live with his flock, be everything to his flock, and be continually caring, watching, and thinking about his flock as Pastor Vandelden described the Good Shepherd.
And then there’s the “valley of impenetrable gloom,” as Francis described it. He pointed out something about how the Psalm changes at verse 4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David switches to first person for the rest of the Psalm. Here we were encouraged that “in the valley, the Lord draws even nearer.” We don’t despair because “the valley can be some of the most painful, but the most rich, God-feeding. You learn to depend and feed on Christ.” He is with us, leading us to higher ground. Even death is but a shadow for the Christian. We know that the ultimate valley of impenetrable doom would be living apart from God. And VanDelden reminded us that Christ the true Shepherd has already went through it for his beloved.
While church potlucks are good and all, I’m looking forward to the table our Good Shepherd is preparing. This was the third point from the sermon: “He sets me at his lavish table.” We will dwell in the house of the Lord! We don’t just learn about goodness, but Goodness has pursued us, given us new life by his Spirit, ministers to us by his Word and sacrament, intercedes at the right hand of the Father on our behalf, and leads us to the promised land, where we will be holy and with Goodness. We will be with Jesus! Goodness and mercy overflow!
In that respect, I agree with the humanists. There is nothing rational about the love of God that loved us when we were still his enemies and gave his very life so that we may have his grace poured out on us. But then again, there’s nothing rational about saying you give your own life for people when you have no true goodness to give them.