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When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today
by Harvey Cox
Houghton Mifflin. 338 pp. $26

When the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. recently released a study of religious and spiritual attitudes among today’s college students, their findings confirmed what astute campus observers had been witnessing for years. American collegians are largely amenable to organized religion, and a substantial segment of them identify themselves as morally conservative.

The survey found that three out of four college students say they pray, discuss religion or spirituality with their friends, and find religion to be personally helpful. One in five is “highly religious,” a term that describes students who frequently attend religious services and re-treats, read sacred texts, and join campus religious organizations. These “highly religious” students tend to be more disapproving than their peers of casual sex, abortion, homosexual relations, and the legalization of marijuana. Their conservative leanings are part of a broader trend increasingly documented in freshman surveys, federal statistics, and public opinion polls, which have found declining rates of approval for casual sex and legal abortion among the young and a rise in the percentage of teenagers who say they are virgins. In contrast to the libertine students of the ’60s, today’s young adults seem increasingly willing to accept limits on their behavior and to seek the guidance of authoritative moral and religious teaching.

Unfortunately, the typical educational experience in today’s secularized university does little to help students in their quest for meaning and moral guidance. The modern university’s emphasis on academic specialization and its skepticism about the possibility of discerning moral truth have deprived students of opportunities to pose and ponder life’s biggest questions in the classroom. While three in four students polled by the U.C.L.A. researchers said they are “searching for meaning and purpose in life,” more than half said their professors never provide opportunities to discuss these matters.

The problem is not new. Recognizing the inadequacy of an education that teaches facts and figures but ignores questions of morality and meaning, Harvard attempted to address the problem in the early 1980s by adding a “moral reasoning” course requirement to its core curriculum. Among the new offerings was “Jesus and the Moral Life,” a course taught by the prominent Harvard theologian Harvey Cox.

In his new book, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today , Cox gives readers a front-row seat at the course he taught for fifteen years. Using biblical stories told by and about Jesus as his starting point, Cox offers a series of wide-ranging reflections on everything from the ethics of in vitro fertilization to the biblical accuracy of the Left Behind novels. Though its title suggests a moral guidebook or a survey of contemporary student morality, this book is neither. Cox has written a theological manifesto that urges readers to see Jesus and his moral teachings in the way that Cox does”disconnected from the trappings and truth-claims of traditional Christianity and therefore relevant to our search for answers today.

Cox begins by outlining what he sees as the chief moral dilemma that confronts his students: an inability to discern, discuss, or defend moral truth. These “benevolent but un-comfortable relativists” tended to “believe that morality was a ‘sometimes’ thing. It varied from age to age, from society to society, and from person to person.” Though they instinctively recoiled from such practices as genital mutilation or genocide, Cox writes, their politically correct conditioning left them without a way to justify their moral revulsion in universal terms. “In the end, even the most religious students had to settle for a kind of mutual tolerance, do-no-harm stance, which they increasingly recognized was important but just not enough.”

Cox’s diagnosis is dead-on. The same cannot be said for the treatment he proposes. One might have expected that a course in moral reasoning based on the teachings of Jesus would include an introduction to the idea of natural law and some discussion of traditional moral teachings, but Cox disagrees with many of the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity and doubts our ability to identify unchanging and absolute truth in religion or morality. Although he claims that Jesus is still relevant to us today, Cox devotes much of his book to convincing readers that Jesus’ teachings were fully true only for his contemporaries. “Like the generations of rabbis who came after him,” Cox writes, “he did not offer answers that would apply to everyone and for all time.”The similarity between Cox’s attitude here and the one he criticizes in his students a few pages before is striking: his reservations notwithstanding, Cox appears to be one of the many “benevolent relativists” of Harvard Yard.

Cox wants to disabuse his readers of the sentimental, ahistorical understanding of Jesus that he detects in nearly every tenet of Christian orthodoxy. Some of his historical and theological insights are indeed valuable. Cox rightly counters the anti-Semitism that separates Jesus from his Jewish roots and the Docetism that denies his humanity. Cox regularly reminds readers that Jesus was fully human, a man who ate and drank and slept. The Jesus we meet in this book reverently practiced his Jewish faith as he grew in strength and wisdom. In this sense, at least, Cox’s Jesus truly is the Jesus of the Bible.

But the similarities end there. In Cox’s view, Jesus was a spunky rabbi who spun enigmatic tales intended only to remind Jews of what they already knew. Jesus did not offer new or unique teachings, urge his followers to prepare for eternal life with God, or fulfill a messianic mission. Instead he en-couraged them to relinquish their hopes for a divine intercessor and focus on collective action and nonviolent rebellion to improve their lot here on earth. As for the reason Jesus was put to death, Cox locates the proximate cause not in humanity’s sinfulness; nor in Jewish outrage over Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God and the Way, the Truth, and the Life; nor in the jealousy of religious leaders threatened by Jesus’ miracles (which Cox suggests were the fruit of positive thinking on the part of those who “feel” healed after touching Jesus); nor in his teachings (which Cox insists were uncontroversial among the Jews). Instead, Cox says, Jesus was killed because he posed a political threat to the Roman occupiers of Palestine.

Cox’s political portrait will gratify those who see Jesus as a wise, rabble-rousing rabbi and nothing more, but it is impossibly inconsistent with the Gospels on which he professes to rely. The author insists on a literal reading of the biblical accounts that would seem to support his quasi-Unitarian Christology while skipping over passages that contradict his views. In some cases”such as the Lucan account of the virgin birth or eyewitness reports about the risen Jesus”Cox mentions the troublesome passages but discourages his readers from grappling with their literal meaning and supernatural elements. Readers should instead focus on their real meaning”a moving target that ranges from Cox’s symbolic interpretation to the way the stories resemble those of other world religions to the latest heterodox conjecture posed by a fellow Harvard professor.

In considering the Easter story, for instance, Cox describes the biblical accounts of Jesus’ bodily resurrection as the confused ramblings of disciples who knew no other way to express their feeling that their rabbi remained somehow present in their lives. Cox offers scant evidence for this claim, perhaps confident that any intelligent reader will reflexively dismiss reports of supernatural phenomena. Even if the resurrection occurred, Cox writes, it “might not be all that significant. Sometimes the inexplicable happens.” The real meaning of reports about Jesus’ resurrection is that “God eventually vindicates the victims of all forms of persecution.” But Cox will not even insist on that timid synopsis: “I do recognize that there are many other possible interpretations, and I would not discount any of them. In fact, ‘interpretation’ is a very secondary matter. The ‘something’ eludes all our theories and interpretations. But we have the story , and when the experience it conveys and evokes makes a real difference in our lives, the various theories all begin to sound less important.”

In fact, very little about Jesus makes a difference in our lives if the Gospel stories are not true. Cox asks us to accept the Gospels as both historically reliable and utterly mythological, depending on which stories we are reading. He likewise asks us to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher while ignoring Jesus’ claim to divinity. As C. S. Lewis reminds us in Mere Christianity , that position is untenable. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. His claim was either true or false. “You must make your choice,” Lewis writes. Jesus may be a liar or a lunatic, or he may be the Lord, but “let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

At campuses like Harvard, orthodox Christian fellowships have experienced explosive growth even as the culture around them grows more decadent. These groups, which encourage students to grapple with bold truth-claims about the nature of God and the meaning of life, are tapping into a hunger for truth too often ignored in the classroom. As the middle ground between traditional religious morality and secular hedonism continues to shrink in America today, college students like Cox’s are realizing that they must make a choice about whether truth matters. How fitting that at a university whose motto is Veritas , many are deciding that it does.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press) .