Jonathan Walton has some giant shoes to fill. The new Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, and the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, he is stepping into the dual role formerly occupied by the dearly departed Peter Gomes. At Harvard, Gomes was a veritable institution unto himself. The recipient of 39 honorary degrees, one of America’s most renowned preachers and successful preacher-writers, and a brilliant and idiosyncratic African American intellectual, Gomes spoke with a kind of deliberate grandiloquence that charmed, elevated and inspired. He outlasted numerous Harvard Presidents and taught a fantastic course on Harvard’s history (which I had the pleasure of helping him teach, one year); his Wednesday afternoon teas were one of Harvard’s finest traditions; and, while never uncontroversial, Gomes was welcoming to people of all faiths, and evangelicals knew they always had a seat at his table.
Recently Walton delivered the “Freshman Sunday” sermon, his inaugural sermon, and the Harvard Gazette reports on his articulation of the Epistle of James:
“Faith as defined in this epistle is not a mere cognitive assent to a belief in a divine being,” said Walton, who succeeded the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes in the influential pulpit. “Nor should faith be conceived as blind allegiance to a perceived sacred yet illusive reality. No, … such conceptions of faith are as morally vacuous as they are ethically inept. Rather, James is referring to faith in a sacred reality that reveals itself in human activity.”
Belief is revealed by action, Walter said. “It does not matter if Christianity is true, but rather can we, as those informed by the teachings of Jesus, make it true. Hence at the end of the day, our faith is not something to be professed, as talk is cheap, but something primarily to be done.”
If I were not a man of conscience, I would take the soundbite — “It does not matter if Christianity is true” — and exploit it to make all the usual points about Harvard’s abandonment of its ancient and original Christian commitments and its obeisance to postmodern relativities. After all, Veritas – the Latin for “truth” — is emblazoned on Harvard’s shield of arms. The official motto, adopted in 1692 (84 years prior to the Declaration of Independence) is even more ironic: Veritas, Christo et ecclesiae – truth, for Christ and the church. Yet here is Harvard’s minister declaring in the heart of Harvard Yard that the truth of Christianity is insignificant.
As Mark D. Roberts explains, among Harvard’s “Rules and Precepts” adopted in 1646 was that every student should be “plainly instructed” that the ultimate purpose of his life and scholarship is “to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life,” and thus to make Christ “the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” Students were encouraged to pray, required to read the scripture twice weekly, and to submit to theological examinations. The original seal had three books on the Harvard shield, with the top two books face-up and the bottom book face-down, to indicate the limits of human rationality and the necessity of divine revelation. Today the three books are all face-up.
It would all be so easy. A university intended to illuminate Jesus Christ as the beginning and end of all knowledge now detaches Christianity from the question of truth and appears to disregard the question of truth entirely. The blog post practically writes itself.
What Walton was saying, however, was not that the truth of Christianity is inconsequential, period. One has to read the rest of the sentence. He was saying something more subtle than that — and yet, at least to my mind, still troubling.
The Epistle of James reminded early Jewish converts to Christianity, “begotten by the Word of Truth,” that the possession of the truth of God’s grace in Christ does not mean that they could abandon the works of love to which Christ called his followers. A living faith transforms us from the inside out, resulting in a life that imitates Christ. In the absence of transformation, action, and works of love, our faith is either false or dead. Yet Walton spoke to a generation already skeptical of ultimate metaphysical truths and told them that the truth of Christianity is in its living out.
The Christian faith, in Walton’s teaching, is “faith in a sacred reality,” so there is an assertion of the reality of some sacred other. This sacred reality “reveals itself in human activity,” and so “faith is not something to be professed, as talk is cheap,” but faith is instead “something primarily to be done.”
This is not necessarily the denial of truth, but is at least its displacement. It’s one thing to say that we experience the truth of God in Christ when we live the life of Christ. It’s another to say that the only “truth” that matters is found in serving others. It’s one thing to say that we come to the truth through participation in the life of Christ. It’s another to say that there is no truth of Christianity apart from what we make true. The truth is the truth, whether or not anyone believes it or acts upon it. Christians historically have understood that they make the truth known through their deeds. But they do not make the truth true through their deeds.
And when Walton denigrates the importance of profession, he’s departing not only from Christian tradition, in which the proclamation of the Word and the confession of the gospel are paramount, but he’s departing from the tradition of Christ, who spent an awful lot of time “professing” as well as “doing.” Christ’s talk was not cheap. The Word is not cheap — and the Word was true eternally, long before there were people to “make it true.”
Walton’s sermon was consistent with the general trend of reducing Christianity to a social justice program, and justifying the presence of churches at secular universities by framing them as community organizers. Yet what was so refreshing about Peter Gomes was that he was willing to be counter-cultural. Reverend Gomes took his immense learning and his towering standing within the Harvard community and used them to stand against the stream. My friend Jeff Barneson related this story after Gomes’ death:
On one occasion [Gomes] spoke at one of the regular meetings of the Harvard Graduate School Christian Fellowship—the InterVarsity group I advise. He told the graduate students packed together in Phillips Brooks House that their calling was to “Say the intolerable thing to a generation whose only value is tolerance.” During the discussion following his remarks, I asked what he meant by “the intolerable thing.” “Jeffrey,” he said, “the intolerable thing is that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Reverend Walton will preach hundreds of sermons in his term as the Pusey Minister and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard. He is just beginning in his new role, which calls for grace and welcome, not a rush to judgment. Surely the evangelical community there will seek to build a friendly and productive relationship. But if he follows in the admirable tradition of his predecessor, Reverend Walton will be willing to press into the tide, to stand for truths immutable in a time of whirling change, and to defend what sounds indefensible to a generation that needs to hear it more than ever.
As one of the students said after the service, “He fits into the community here.” Let’s hope he does not fit in too much.