Harvard’s Pastor: “It Does Not Matter if Christianity is True…”

Harvard’s Pastor: “It Does Not Matter if Christianity is True…” October 9, 2012
Jonathan Walton

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.

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  • Like you, this raises my eyebrows, but I think we could read it as a corrective in which case overstatement is used to drive home a point. The less over stated version might be “That you believe Christianity to be true doesn’t really matter. The demons believe and shudder. What matters is the truth expressed in your actions.” Even the idea of a truth looked at as something we make true makes some sense. For example, your use of “Jesus is Lord”. To say this apart from obedience is indeed cheap talk. To obey is to “make” it true in how I live.

    • MiCoBa

      Yes, that’s what it sounds like to me.

    • David Naas

      This would be my take on it.

  • It’s bad form to lynch someone over one sermon. But truth is like furniture in a dark room; it’s there whether we see it or not. And rambling through spiritual darkness, we crash into it even while denying its existence. Truth does not require our belief (well said). It does not even require our existence. God revealed Himself in Christ not to conform to our categories but to shatter them. Truth revealed in Christ means to bring people to embrace that truth in mind and heart. Then, truth alive in the Christian mind through the Holy Spirit informs and empowers truth in action. If we just follow the Jesus ethic (whatever that means), we end up looking like a bunch of “B” team “do gooders” who couldn’t make the cut with the Peace Corps wearing a smear of Jesus frosting. Good distinctions and fair treatment, Tim. Reverend Walton obviously doesn’t have a red letter Bible. With holidays on the horizon, it could be a timely gift idea if combined with a gift card from some cool restaurant in Cambridge.

  • Joe W. Maccarthy

    This is complete post-Enlightenment tripe. Indeed it DOES matter if Christianity is true. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then he is just another philosopher. If he is not the second person of the Trinity, then he is a liar and a bad man. Acting morally is not simply a social convention (which, as we know, can change in a heartbeat depending on the academic flavor of the month), but the fruit of BELIEF. Indeed, better to act in a Christian way without belief than believe and act badly, but Truth does matter. Truth inspires goodness. Goodness does not make Truth.

    • Brian P.

      Then, so be it. He’s a liar and a bad man. Rinse and move on.

  • Tanya

    I would like to see a link to the full sermon, if one is available. I would like to read the sermon in full before I judge it, or presume to know exactly what we meant. Perhaps a link is available and might be inserted?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m not sure. If some enterprising commenter wanted to search it out, I’d be happy to add a link.

  • Ted Seeber

    I’m not surprised at all. American Protestantism has a long history, going back to before the American Revolution, of attempting to strip Christianity of anything remotely religious or that gets in the way of the American worship of the unholy trinity: Mammon, Mars, and Maloch.

    Ivy league schools like Harvard have been at the forefront of this destructive behavior for 200 years. That is why even if my son was smart enough to be admitted, I would never commit the child abuse that is sending a child to an Ivy League School, where endowments in wills count more than actual academic achievement or even thinking skills.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Stanford’s not technically an Ivy League school, but I should say that I had a fantastic time there, and my faith grew in leaps and bounds as I participated in the student fellowships. I saw the same in students at Princeton and Harvard. My students at Harvard were exceedingly diverse in every respect, but quite a few were devout Christians. I wouldn’t paint the whole Ivy League with a single black brush, I guess. Many institutions have lost their way, but these institutions are basically just groups of people, and some of those people are truly extraordinary. In my experience, Christian students at secular elite universities do very well if they’re plugged into Christian fellowships there.

    • vasaroti

      Try telling a student talented enough to be admitted to an ivy league degree program that they are victims of child abuse.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    Is it that the truth is insignificant? Or is it a segue acknowledging that we can’t really know until we’re dead whether god’s talking to us or we’re crazy in the head?

  • Ben Goshi

    Peter Gomes is a homosexual as he himself admitted in his book entitled “The Good Book”. He even defends homosexuality as moral and not condemned by the Bible. These liberal Harvard “Christian” “scholars” distort and twist what the Bible teaches on certain moral issues such as homosexuality and abortion. People should listen to real Christian scholars and pastors instead of the likes of these Harvard preachers who lead people astray.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Gomes’ homosexuality is no secret. Still, follow the link to Barneson’s remembrance. Since I believe that homosexual behavior is not what God intended, I disagree with Gomes on this issue. But he’s hardly the only theologically progressive Christian to believe this, and he had some extraordinary virtues as well.

  • David Naas

    Why is it, when evangelicals come out of the closet, one sees them snarling and in attack mode? People who I meet in real life are not so, unless their souls have been severely distorted by the angry, no-compromise political culture of today’s America. Almost every person who leaps to a defense of Christ and His Church ON THE INTERNET seems to be more interested in making points and taking blood than in sharing the main truth of the gospel — that Jesus the Christ died for us, and we are then to make over our lives to act in such a manner that it is Christ acting through us. This angry aggressive atttack mode so prevalent today reminds me of the worst of Liberation Theology — the image of Jesus with an AK-47, eady to smite the evil people with immediate, summary, and capital justice — just as the Marxists envisioned it. We are not Marxists who think a little liquidation is good for society. We are supposed to be Christians who are sent to heal souls. We are not sent to gratify our Old Man with malice and petty spite directed at everyone beyond “Me and Thee, and I doubt Thee.” My brothers and sisters, Repent!

    • Bobby B.

      Wow! That post packs a real one-two punch. Way to knock some sense into those thick-skulled, Che tee shirt wearing, evangelical Neanderthals. Keep this up and you’ll score a KO in the second round.

  • Butch P

    Relativism like this is what is trying to destroy Christ’s church, but He WILL have the final say! Sad to see this at Harvard! Sin is sin, God is Holy! Man’s attempt to discount this will ALWAYS fail.

  • To state that it does not matter if Christianity is true is a sign that the author of those words has not read the New Testament as it stands. If Jesus did not exist and did not rise from the grave then we have a myth instead of a faith. Truth is essential in fact but apparently not in the post-modern mind of the speaker.

    It is my opinion, based clearly on Scripture that the individual who made this statement should not be an ordained minister of the Gospel. The founders of Harvard will shudder in their graves to hear these heretical words. He should be ashamed of his clear and direct misrepresentation of Christ and His true and real work in history.

  • Butch and Matthew,

    What do you think Dr. Dalrymple means when he writes:

    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.

  • Every person’s worldly notion of f-a-i-t-h is changed by the Christ Transformation when (or, IF) it comes. Everything Jesus said and did pointed directly to an entirely new state-of-being; a new kind of life that is untouched by the death-effect caused by the knowledge of good and evil. Our travail in this living-death paradox is what Paul describes in Romans 7. Christ Alone is the author and finisher of f-a-i-t-h. Attempts to redefine or dumb-down the actuality of Christ’s Faith has been Satan’s business for 2000 years. These days Satan’s infernal business is indeed brisk.

  • Marion

    Just sounds like a variation of Pascal’s wager to me.