Harvard Ironies





Harvard Ironies

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts


Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts


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Harvard Ironies: Veritas for Whom? For What?

This Thursday, May 27th, Harvard University holds its commencement. It’s not called “graduation,” but “commencement,” because the ceremony is the beginning of life beyond the university. I had to opportunity to participate in two Harvard commencements, in 1979 as I finished college, and in 1992 to receive my Ph.D. Yes, that means I did pay some form of tuition during 18 consecutive years, from 1975 to 1992. And, yes, it suggests I was a rather slow student, the Crimson tortoise, not the hare.

Today, and during the next couple of days, I want to share some reflections on my alma mater. In particular, I will focus on a few curious ironies about Harvard and my experience there. (I blogged on these six years ago, but it’s time to refresh my thoughts.)

During my years at Harvard, the university seal was everywhere: on library chairs and notebooks, on sweatshirts and university signs, wherever I turned, there was VE-RI-TAS, following my every move like the eye of God (or, perhaps, Lord Sauron). Harvard was all about veritas, Latin for “truth.” (It’s popularly pronounced “VER-ee-tas,” except by classics majors, who us the more proper “WER-ee-tas.”)

But it wasn’t until I was well into my college experience that I learned the truth about the Harvard seal and the motto emblazoned upon it. Yes, the motto did contain the word veritas. But on the official official university seal veritas didn’t stand alone. It was joined to three other Latin words: christo et ecclesiae. The whole motto translated into English reads: “Truth . . . for Christ and the church.”

This official motto, adopted by the university in 1692, was consistent with Harvard’s original vision for its educational purpose. Among the “Rules and Precepts” of 1646 was the following:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).

The official university seal from my Ph.D. diploma. Around the central shield that reads VERITAS, you can barely see the Latin words CHRISTO ET ECCLESIAE.

Needless to say, during the last three centuries, Harvard lost touch with its original purpose, though the student body continues to include a healthy number of faithful Christians. The predominant view among many Harvardians these days, however, would be that truth is relative, and that there is no certain truth upon which to base one’s life. You’d find a more robust view of truth among those who teach and study in the natural sciences. But even among most of those who actually believe there is Truth to be discovered and studied, the idea that the pursuit of truth is for the sake of Christ and the church would considered an curious antique of a pre-modern age.

Notice that veritas christo et ecclesiae does not consist only of theological truth. This phrase assumes that all truth is relevant to Christ and his people, including the truth of physics, chemistry, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and, well, you name it. This view of truth denies the oft-made distinction between the sacred and secular. It sees all of creation, and therefore all of truth, as a result of God and a reflection of God’s own truthfulness. Veritas christo et ecclesiae encourages people to engage in all academic disciplines for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Though I spent eight years in residence at Harvard, I still believe that there is such a thing as VERITAS, as Truth with a capital ‘T.’ Moreover, I even believe that human beings should pursue such Truth for the sake of Christ and his church. This pretty much explains why I do what I do as a pastor, a retreat leader, a teacher, a student of Scripture, and a blogger. In fact, I believe along with the governors of Harvard in 1646, that Christ is “the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” Yes, I may be a bit of an antique. But sometimes antiques are worth a whole lot more than newfangled contraptions. When it comes to truth, I think the founding leaders of my alma mater got it right. Truth, all truth, when rightly understood, is indeed “for Christ and the church.”

Harvard Ironies: The Statue of the Three Lies

If you were to visit my alma mater, Harvard University, no doubt you’d wander about in Harvard Yard. And, if you were like thousands of other visitors to “The Yard,” you’d end up getting your picture taken in front of the statue of John Harvard.

The statue of John Harvard in the winter, with a couple of crazy freshman standing in front of it. Yes, I am one of those who thought it would be fun to brave 28 degree temperatures to take a photo in front of the statue. My roommate Henry is on the right.

Or at least you’d think you had your picture taken in front of a statue of John Harvard. After all, the statue has the name “John Harvard” engraved upon it, along with the information that he founded Harvard College in 1638. But, as it turns out, none of these “facts” is true. That’s why students in the know refer to this monument to Mr. Harvard as “The Statue of the Three Lies.”

What are the lies?

1. The bronze man is not John Harvard, who left no visual representations of himself, but rather an unnamed student who sat for a sculptor in the 1800′s, two centuries after Mr. Harvard died.

2. John Harvard did not found a college at all. Rather, when he died in 1638, he left a small amount of money and his library of 320 books in his will to be used for the training of young men for Christian ministry.

3. The college (not called Harvard at this time, of course), was founded by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1636. It was named “Harvard College” in 1638 (or 1639) in honor of John Harvard’s benefaction.

So, the statue supposedly of John Harvard who founded Harvard College in 1638 is actually a statue of an unknown Harvard student who represents the real John Harvard, who did not actually found a college in 1638, but who died in 1638, leaving money for a school that had been founded two years earlier. Rev. Harvard, who was known to be a passionate preacher, intended his gift to support the training of Christian ministers. (For more info on John Harvard, see this article.)

Given the current religious state of Harvard University – not exactly a paragon of Christian faith – there’s much irony here. But I want to focus for a moment on the deceptions of this statue. Surely they aren’t the sorts of lies that ruin lives or nations. Yet I find this statue to be a symbol for the reality of our culture. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re swimming in a sea of deceptions. Even the most prominent image of the university committed to Veritas (truth) is touched by duplicity.

I don’t want simply to complain about the deceitfulness of our world today. This gets tiresome. I do want to suggest to things that you and I can do to make a difference, albeit a small one. First, we can be steadfast in seeking the truth. Whether that truth is political, religious, historical, relational, or whatever, we need to invest our efforts to go beneath the façade and spin in order to find the truthful bedrock. Second, we can strive in our own lives to be people who speak and live the truth. I have felt to strongly about the need for us to be people of truth, in word and in deed, that I wrote a whole book about this, Dare to Be True. I’m convinced that, with God’s help, we can live truth-full lives. . . not perfectly, but with consistency, by God’s grace. Our being people of truth will make a huge difference in our daily lives and closest relationships. And it will make a small dent in the larger world in which we live.

Harvard Ironies: The Irony of All Ironies

Today, thousands of people will descend upon Harvard Yard as the university celebrates its 359th Commencement (graduation). Half of Harvard Yard will be transformed into the Tercentenary Theatre as thousands of students “commence” their new lives as Harvard graduations.

One of the borders of the Tercentenary Theatre is Emerson Hall. In ordinary life, it houses the university’s philosophy department. In fact, I spent countless hours there as an undergraduate with a concentration (major) in philosophy. But, as it turns out, Emerson Hall is much more than a building for academic pursuits. It’s a landmark on the Harvard campus, and one that embodies one of the most striking ironies Harvard has to offer.

Emerson Hall rose to fame because of it’s role in one of the most popular movies in 1970. The tear-jerking classic, Love Story, starred Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett IV and Ali McGraw as Jennifer Cavilleri, both of whom were students at Harvard. (Technically, Jennifer was a student at Radcliffe College.) This was the movie that popularized the (un)forgettably profound line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Parts of Love Story were filmed on the Harvard campus. One key building, called Barrett Hall in the movie, was in fact Emerson Hall, the haunts of the Harvard philosophy department.

As an undergraduate concentrating in philosophy, I was required to take a few courses in the history of philosophy. But, for the most part, my fellow students and I studied contemporary philosophy, including logic and philosophy of language. In these classes, I was taught that truth was merely a human construct, and that God was basically irrelevant to human thought. One of my professors actually acknowledge that the existence of God was 50% probable. I expect the Lord was glad to hear that! The philosophy faculty at Harvard apparently did not uphold the vision of the Harvard seal: veritas christo et ecclesiae, “Truth for Christ and the church.”

The fact that the great Harvard philosophers inhabited Emerson Hall struck me as extraordinarily ironic, but not only because this building had co-starred in Love Story. Rather, the irony of ironies had to do with what was engraved in stone on the outside of Emerson Hall. There, in giant letters, was a portion of Psalm 8: “WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM.”

This line, a portion of Psalm 8:4, calls us to humility before the wonders of the Creator God. It reminds us of our smallness and weakness when compared with the majesty and might of the Lord. Yet, inside the hallowed walls of Emerson Hall, some of the finest minds of the 20th century reversed the order. God was neglected or denied to exist by the greatness and power of contemporary philosophy.

Had Emerson Hall been built in the 1970′s (and in the years since), it might well have been inscribed with “WHAT IS GOD THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM.” Or perhaps “MAN IS ALL WE HAVE TO BE MINDFUL OF.” My guess is that the statement of the ancient Greek philosopher Protragoras would have prevailed: “MAN IS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS.” (Of course the use of “man” as a generic would never be tolerated today! So it would have to be the considerably less elegant ‘HUMANKIND IS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS.” In fact, Protagoras’ quotation had been suggested for the inscription, but Harvard President C.W. Eliot chose the Psalm text instead.)

It’s almost too easy to laugh at the irony of Emerson Hall with its erudite atheist inhabitants. But before I chuckle too hard, I ought to examine my own life. Do I live as if it’s a wonder that God is mindful of me? Or do I live as if I were the measure of all things? Though I believe in God, am I living humbly before God today – really? Moreover, am I living as if I had relationship with the all-powerful Creator of the universe? Do my prayers reflect this sort of faith?

Psalm 8 concludes with a double punch line. On the one hand, it reveals that we have been made “a little lower than God” and been given dominion over God’s creation (8:5-8). So, though humbled by God’s greatness, we nevertheless have been honored by him as his royal stewards. On the other hand, the Psalm concludes as it began, with praise of God’s greatness: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (8:9). Here is a verse that ought to be engraved upon our minds and hearts!


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