When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today

  1. Review

    Jesus came to Harvard College of Harvard University in the early 1980’s when the faculty asked the author to teach a course on Jesus as part of the newly established Moral Reasoning division of the undergraduate curriculum. The faculty had created this division after realizing that the university was equipping students with a knowledge of the humanities and science, but failing to provide them with preparation on how to “apply their education in a responsible manner.” So it was decided that several courses in moral reasoning would be offered and every student would be required to take at least one course in order to graduate.

    The author had misgivings about the project. He was not sure that morality could be taught in the classroom. He thought it was better taught at an earlier age in the home and in religious institutions. He also had reservations because there were to be several courses offered which appeared to be “wildly disparate” and might seem like a “cafeteria view of morality” which the faculty did not want to promote. He was also concerned because the students represented every religion and none and therefore would have “sharply different views on ethical questions.” He expressed his concerns to colleagues who were already teaching courses in moral reasoning and they were reassuring. The first semester the class was offered, large numbers of students enrolled and after several years seven to eight hundred were taking the course. Soon, so many students enrolled it was difficult to find space for the lectures and the weekly section discussion meetings of fifteen students each. Thus began what the author describes as “some of the most memorable moments of my life as a teacher.”

    On the supposition that the class was a “microcosm of the world” Harvey Cox shares with his readers his lectures together with reactions, arguments and reflections of his students during the class and in the weekly discussion meetings. It is his hope that this book will “reach far beyond Harvard Yard and speak a much more inclusive exploration, that it will open a door for readers of all ages and all religious backgrounds, or none, to become co-searchers in the urgent quest” of making moral choices today.

    The author is convinced that the best way to “discover the moral meaning of Jesus” is to approach the Gospels as stories. This approach avoids the sterility of biblical literalism and the reductionism of some forms of the historical critical approach to the Bible. He stresses that religious stories “link individuals and communities to vital parameters of life – pain, death, destiny, meaning, value – in such a way that they provide the most basic sense of direction and orientation.” He writes, that to enter into the story world of Jesus “is to take the first step toward understanding his spiritual and moral relevance for us today”

    The chapters of the book follow the life of Jesus from his birth to his death/resurrection, told by the four Gospels, focusing on the stories he told and the stories others told about him. The author, reminding the reader that Jesus “was then and we are now” suggests that there are “two key components” which can help bridge the centuries. The first is that, before receiving the many titles given to him by the early church, Jesus was a rabbi. He was a teacher of the Torah, the Jewish law, although with “an original twist.” The second is that Jesus passed on the moral tradition of Israel to his people by “relying more on narrative than on precept and principle.”

    In the context of the stories told about Jesus and the stories he told, the author and his students talked about “family relationships, politics, genetics, money, sexuality, class, intergenerational conflict, medical procedures, violence and non-violence, death and dying, leadership styles, and dozens of other topics.”

    Harvey Cox has written an illuminating, sparkling, “ urgently relevant” book for individuals, church and non-church groups, for people discerning and wrestling with moral choices today. He concludes with this paragraph. “Jesus did come to Harvard, but not just once. I am sure he was there long before I taught Jesus and the Moral Life, and that he did not leave town when I closed the books on the course. He is still there, still elusive, still hard to put down. But he is a persistent one, that rabbi. He just won’t let up.”

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