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The World Is Not a Church
An interview with Yale Chaplain Harry Adams ē March 1992

Harry Adams í47, BD í51 has been Chaplain of Yale College since 1986. Adams has been at Yale for 36 years, serving as an Associate Dean as well as Master of Trumbull College. Adams will retire from the chaplaincy this spring.

Intolerant Religious Tolerance
YFP: Do you see the chaplaincy as specifically religious or secular?

HA: Religious. Absolutely.

YFP: What religion should the chaplain profess?

HA: Iím a Protestant. I donít think you can be generically religious. The chaplain at Yale has always been a Protestant. Now perhaps the time has come to consider where we stand on this. When I was a student here, I would guess 90% of the students were Protestants. Now, maybe about a third of the students are Jewish, and about half are Protestants.

YFP: But isnít Protestantism the true faith?

HA: No. Iím a Protestant. Protestantism is my true faith, but itís not the only true faith.

YFP: It doesnít strike me that that kind of open-mindedness is a traditional Protestant position.

HA: Protestants differ on that. There was a time when Protestant denominations were antagonistic toward each other, but the ecumenical movement has moved beyond that. Itís a different split now, between what we might call religious conservatives and liberals. These differences concern the authority of Scriptureóhow the authority of Scripture is interpreted. Some Protestants would say that only Christians are saved. Mainstream Protestants take the position that you have a witness to make, but there are convictions and faiths that you donít know about and you canít say that those of other faiths are lost.

YFP: I congregate with a group of people that have much more traditional notions, which do involve judgment and perhaps what you would call intolerance of other faiths. How would you suggest that we integrate ourselves into a community which, from our point of view, imposes a dogmatism of tolerance on us?

HA: Well, maybe you canít do it. I donít know. Maybe you have to pronounce your judgment.

YFP: But by commending a specific form of tolerance, you in fact are making a judgment about peopleís dogmatism and excluding them from what was once, in fact, their community. Once the University, for example, takes on a religiously tolerant position, in some critical sense it excludes those of the old faith.

HA: Well, I donít think itís the ďoldĒ faith.

YFP: Perhaps more traditional.

HA: Well, I disagree with that too. If you go back through church history, back to the Bible, you find strains of both tolerance and intolerance. I donít think the intolerant position is any more ďtraditionalĒ than the position which makes room for very different types.

The University as a Church
YFP: To return to the point: When I contribute to an organizationóthe state, or the universityóitís important to me that this organization holds what I hold as its highest beliefs.

HA: I think thatís OK.

YFP: You agree with that?

HA: Yes.

YFP: So then if the University engages in or endorses un-Christian activities, it is my responsibility to correct or condemn the situation.

HA: I would say that in this kind of pluralistic situation, youíre better off not doing so. There are institutions that do explicitly uphold traditional views. Yale is not one of those. In its Puritan origins Yale was a Church institution. It wasnít faced with the kind of situation we have now. To say that some people are second-class religiously, that they have the wrong faith, is not the proper way to deal with Yaleís present diversity.

YFP: What if you believe that some people actually have the wrong faith?

HA: I donít believe that. If there is a group that does believe that, then they have to find a way to live in this university and make their witness. Again, we ask that people have respect for the faiths of others and manifest that respect in their services. Beyond that, I donít know. You have every right to gather and make any affirmation you want to. But you canít coerce other people, either psychologically or physically. Beyond that, you have every freedom to articulate your views.

YFP: As Christians, I think we must insist that organizations like Yale share our goals and recognize the same authorities.

HA: People ought to come to Yale knowing what kind of institution it is. Yale is not that kind of institution.

YFP: But it once was.

HA: No, Iím positive it was not.

YFP: And it could be again.

HA: Then I think you would have to make this clear before people came to Yale.

YFP: Granted, granted.

HA: But itís not that now. Therefore it would seem to me that it would be false and wrong to have a chaplain trying to steer Yale in an explicitly and avowedly Christian direction.

YFP: So you think that the moral responsibility to return the university to its Christian past is negated by the fact that weíve entered into a contractual relationship with people of other faiths?

HA: I donít think Christianity defines this university. If I were chaplain of Bob Jones University or Oral Roberts University my responsibilities to students there would be quite different. Itís easier to define the responsibilities of the chaplain at places like those. Here I have to be a presence, I have to be faithful to my tradition, I have to respect the different traditions. I think that is the role of the chaplain. Sure, I will lay claim to my faith, or the Biblical witness, or anything else. I find that one strain of Christianity nurtures me and helps me be faithful.

YFP: You can understand, though, why the more conservative elements cannot support a chaplain such as yourself?

HA: I find that very sad; I must say I find that very sad.

YFP: But you can understand that.

HA: Yes, I can understand that; itís tragic, but I can understand that.

YFP: You can understand that thereís a political call to the religious conservatives at Yale, to reform the religious institutions that they see.

HA: I suppose that from your point of view the chaplain should promote the same view of religious authority that you do. But that would be wrong. It would be in violation of the terms of his appointment. I puzzled over how to help people manifest their own faith in what is obviously a very religiously diverse community. I frankly would not want to return to the type of university that youíre espousing. I would hope that people could live with one another in a positive, affirming way. For me, the overall tenor and meaning of Scripture is love of God, and that has to come before casting out.

YFP: Even if that casting out only involves intellectual denial of their propositions? Denying that Judaism is theologically valid, for example.

HA: No, I think thatís valid.

YFP: Have I misrepresented your position?

HA: Last time Eli wrote about me, they called me an atheist. I must say I took great offense at being judged that way when Iíve been a believer for 60-some years. But my perspective on God is not absolute. Any human being is limited in his knowledge.

YFP: Except to say that God exists.

HA: Thatís my affirmation; thatís my faith.

YFP: How is God manifested to you?

HA: In many ways. Through the Scriptures, through His Creation, through relationships, through prayer, through Godís Spirit moving in the world. Therefore, I have my feeling that God has claimed me in various ways. God has claimed you in different ways. And I frankly am content with that.

YFP: Thatís the view that the majority of society holds. But what we lose is the ability to condemn and to act against, and to defend the morality of the Bible: the conviction that adultery is wrong. That divorce is wrongóabsolutely. That homosexuality is wrongóabsolutely.

HA: You see, I donít think thatís wrong. A Christian canít play God.

YFP: No Christian would say that, ever. Certainly thatís not what I meant.

HA: Then what are you condemning people for?

YFP: When a member of the community acts in a way that is unacceptable, then in the Churchís tradition, you have the positive obligation to make it first clear to them that theyíre doing something wrong. Then make it clear publicly. And finally, if thereís no change in behavior, you must ostracize that person from the community. At Yale there are massive immoralities, and the community is structured so that that which is most criticalóthat a Christian should act against evil in his communityóis positively banned.

HA: The University is not a church.

YFP: Shouldnít it be?

HA: No.

YFP: Why not?

HA: The world is not.

YFP: Why shouldnít the world be a church? Isnít that precisely what Christ desires, that the world be made into the body of Christ?

HA: It might be mighty nice, but itís not the world. Thereís a separation between the Church and the world.

YFP: I agree with you that thereís a separation, but itís a hierarchical separation. The one is higher than the other. The one should take its orders from the other.

HA: I donít knowówhat church, what religious order is going to give orders to the State? Theocracies havenít worked for very good reasons.

YFP: I think the very good reason was the failure of Christians.

HA: Which is always going to be there.

YFP: And which we should fight against, rather than accept.

HA: No, no, you see, the Church ought to be the Church; the world ought to be the world. I think thereís a difference. And I think the Church ought to be the body of believers, the Body of Christ, it ought to hold its members to faithfulness in ways appropriate to itself. And also love the world. And loving the world means, yes, affirming that God loves people even when they destroy themselves and hurt each other. We were talking about absolutes. Even if the Bible is absolute, itís always mediated by my interpretation of it. I tend to emphasize the love of God. I learn from others and I share what I have with others. But Iím quite willing to say, for me, that some religious ways are more fulfilling than others.

YFP: So personal fulfillment is your guide.

HA: No, no. Obedience to God is my guide.

YFP: But thereís no law which has absolute power?

HA: You want absolutes. I donít think there are absolutes in this case. I think there are human judgments and perceptions. Some are more adequate than others. Some readings of the text are more faithful than other readings of the text. But I donít have absolute knowledge; and you know that.

YFP: We have no absolute ways of knowing God?

HA: We have faith.

YFP: But my faith informs me of certain absolutes. For instance, that the Scriptures are true; that the Churchís traditions are true; that God exists.

HA: Thatís by faith; we live by faith.

YFP: I agree. But that faith provides me with absolutes.

HA: Thatís fine. But, you see, the only thing I know absolutely is that I live by faith in the love of God. And thatís as far as I can go. We have to live by faith, and not by knowledge.

YFP: Faith provides absolute knowledge.

HA: Isnít conviction and trust in the love and care of God sufficient for you?

YFP: I have a faith that certain positions should be held as if we knew their validity absolutely. You seem to have a faith that all positions should be pursued as if none of them were absolute.

HA: Sure. I try to manifest the spirit of Christ in my life; to live that spirit, and to share that with others. For me, thatís the heart of it.

YFP: I think thatís a highly respectable position, but it runs into theological difficulties.

HA: Theology is very important and it has a profound impact. But itís not my role as a chaplain to emphasize it. I think I would be remiss if I were to accept that all faiths are equal or that all traditions are equally valid. But I do take very seriously anybody who says to me, this is the religious tradition by which I live. I respect their convictions. Iím willing to take a good look, see how they live. Thatís how I would relate to them. Itís a matter of how you conduct yourself. I would do it kindly. I wouldnít say to someone that the faith by which they live, the faith that has nurtured them, the community, is false.

Conservative Christians
YFP: I think a fundamental part of Christianity is cultural confidence, specifically, confidence in the full traditional doctrines of Christianity. One of the essential marks of the modern liberal institution is its refusal to take absolute stands, to the point whereóparadoxicallyóit punishes members of the community who do take those absolute stands. There is something like an anti-conservative dogma.

HA: You may read this as intolerance, but I donít agree with you. Iíd never like to hold that view. I operate out of the belief that people have the right to be faithful and responsible to any perspective of God. Thatís my perspective on it.

YFP: The last questions I have is: what advice would you offer about the attainment of the conservative vision of religion at Yale?

HA: I wouldnít. Christians should not try to run the world. And when any Christian group tries to, thereís a lot of suffering. I think true Christianity always comes from the periphery. There was a profound corruption when the Church was a secular power. By being a loving, living, faithful, Spirit-filled peopleóthatís the way one goes bearing oneís witness to the world. Not by taking over institutions.

óInterview conducted by Eric Clark


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