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When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox

March 9th, 2005 · 2 Comments

I found myself caught up in these swirling currents in the early 1980s when the faculty of Harvard College asked me to teach a course on Jesus in the newly introduced Moral Reasoning division of the undergraduate curriculum. The faculty had created this program after deciding that the university could no longer ignore a growing embarrassment. Why were we hearing so much about insider trading, sleazy legal practices, doctors more interested in profts than patients, and scientist who fudged the data? Worse, still, why were some of these culprits our own undergraduates? Why were so many well-educated people doing bad things? Was something missing from the education we were giving our students?

We knew we were equipping them with a good command of the humanities and the sciences […] But we began to see that we were giving them virtually no preparation for how to apply their educations in a morally responsible manner. They were becoming experts on facts but novices on values. So the faculty decided that henceforth every student would be required to take at least one course in moral reasoning in order to graduate…[…]

I had my doubts about the idea. I wasn’t sure that morality was something one could teach in a classroom.

– from the Introduction, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today by Harvey Cox

After seeing a review in the Seattle Times (which I can’t find now to link!), I reserved Harvey Cox’s book When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today at the local library. I was curious. As an Ivy League graduate and as someone who wrestled with her faith both in college and through the years since then, I wanted to know what had been happening at Harvard.

Within the first few chapters, I discovered that Harvey Cox and I are not on the same page spiritually. My first reaction to these differences was to think that I would be uncomfortable as a student in his class. He and I would disagree.

However, as Harvey Cox described the class he created, the students who came and the syllabus they discussed, I liked the man more and more. I liked Harvey Cox. And I found I liked Jesus more after getting a glimpse of him through the professor’s eyes.

This book had the potential to become an academic thesis crafted with abstraction and criticism. Instead Harvey Cox chose to share his own personal spiritual journey as he taught students at Harvard about Jesus. He shared his fears and doubts as a person and as a professor. He shared his own experiments of his soul, such as using his imagination in meditation. The stories he put on the page, as well as the pieces of himself, made the book an easy read and drew me into the classroom and into the mind and soul of Cox himself.

Chapters cover topics such as what it means for human beings to inhabit a body and Jesus and his family as refugees. One of my favorite illustrations was the trial of Jesus with Alan Derschowitz as defense, Professor Cox as Pontius Pilate, and the students acting as his advisory council. Even with Derschowitz as his defense, Jesus was still condemned to death.

The author often said he was afraid to introduce certain issues from the life of Jesus, for example healing, money and resurrection, but again and again it seemed he found himself surprised by his students’ reactions and even eagerness to discuss these highly-charged but applicable aspects of the gospel story. What I gained most from the book was a view of Jesus as a rabbi, in the context of his time, with the Bible and history of his day, also contrasted to Muslim beliefs and modern beliefs. The Jesus Harvey Cox saw in the Bible was a radical political Jesus, a rabbi, a storyteller, someone challenging the status quo but allowing people to choose their response to him. Another powerful and timely chapter centered on the trio of reason, emotion and torture.

Reading Harvey Cox’s book about Jesus made me think what it would be like to read books others had written about someone I loved. For example what if I read a pile of books describing Ted, written by everyone from his parents to his first grade teacher to his college roommate. How much another’s perspective adds to our own and how precious the difference can be. How all the portraits combined create a rich composite. When I read Harvey Cox’s portrait of Jesus, I loved Jesus more for who he is in Cox’s eyes and in my own. And I began to love Harvey Cox too, for who he is.

Below I’ve typed a collection of favorite quotes from the book. A particular aspect I appreciated was the role of Jesus as storyteller. I believe stories have power and so does Cox.

We need a present day equivalent for the ritual settings in which the classical narratives were once sung, enacted, and interpreted. But given the altered cultural context, today’s equivalents must welcome a degree of sorting and selectivity rarely found in the older ones, and encourage people to exchange their personal accounts in the light of the larger narrative. p. 44

With this kind of scandalous stuff inside the covers of the Good Book, who needs to waste money on true romance magazines? p. 54

Now years later I still carry on imaginary conversations with the rabbi from Nazareth. It has become my principal form of meditation. p. 99

We mistakenly sever the question of “Who am I” from the question of “What must I do?” The two belong together. p. 101

No one hearing Jesus’ message could have thought that he meant you could do nothing and just wait for it to happen. The need to respond, one way or another, was integral to everything he said and did. p. 160

Like the parables he told, the healing stories told about Jesus not only defied the ideas about health and healing that circulated in his day, they defy ours as well. p. 184

One of the most powerful elements of the Jesus story is that even after two millenia, retelling it plunges any honest hearer into confronting some issues we normally avoid. p. 219 (palm Sunday)

All in all, I have come to share Bonhoeffer’s suggestion that Jesus’ agonized cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the most important verse in the Bible and the most decisive moment in Jesus’ life.
How can God feel abandoned by himself? But the fact we cannot fully grasp such an idea does not make it any less powerful. It merely deepens the mystery of just how God was present in Jesus, and how God continues to suffer the grief and heartache of human existence. p. 266


After decades of writing, thinking and teaching about him, I can honestly report that I still think of Jesus as a friend, but I find him ever more elusive and impossible to pin down. Every so often he takes me by surprise. I catch a glimpse of him sometimes on wintry afternoons strolling through Harvard Yard; chatting with sophomores, Ph.D. candidates, and faculty members, dunking doughnuts in coffee with the maids and janitors; helping the students who run the homeless shelters in the church basements to make up the beds for another cold night. Sometimes I see him as one of the shivering homeless men or women who wander into those shelters. But why should I be surprised? He is where he always was, doing what he was always doing: teaching, chatting, eating and drinking without regard to rank. Today, like then, he meets the same mixture of welcome and hesitation, skepticism and rejection. He runs the constant risk of real trouble with both the religious and political establishments. But he gently forces people to look at life differently and maybe live it differently. p. 302

Tags: books

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 joann // Mar 9, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    Hmm… I think I would like Mr. Howard Cox, too. Just from the quotes you’ve included, he sounds like someone who has been ‘on the journey’ with all the rocky trails and mis-steps, and God stayed right along side.

    That’s how I like to think of it, too. Geesh. I don’t know why I didn’t post this on my own website.

    I did post another topic about faith and church.

    But it’s good to read/hear about people like Howard who has gone on the journey and can tell others like us, that it’s OK. You know what I mean?


  • 2 Julie // Mar 10, 2005 at 11:52 pm

    Thanks, joann. Thanks for your post too. The author has definitely been on some journeys and shared them in his book. It was also interesting to see the trips students, and the class as a whole, would take together. The book gave me a new perspective and appreciation. Thanks for reading along and sharing the journey here too with me. 🙂

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