A few years ago, in the middle of the journey of life—in modern terms, having a midlife crisis—I read St. Augustine’s Confessions for the first time since I was eighteen. I’d loved the work when I was young, but in what was hardly an original discovery, I found that I appreciated it all the more as I was growing gray.
My wife’s grandmother, who is now ninety-six years old, joined me in reading Sarah Ruden’s new translation, and we discussed it night after night for a couple of months. The widow of theologian Robert W. Jenson, she patiently explained many sections that were then and remain today outside my easy understanding. In addition, to my amusement, she repeatedly urged me—a godless classicist—to write my own confessions.
Such a document only a grandmother could love. Personal reflections by ordinary people are embarrassing to compose and, because they are like diary entries, more embarrassing still for outsiders to read. Nonetheless, I am going to risk putting my name on a few words about sin, redemption, and faith.
One need not believe in a higher power in order to know that the capacity for wrongdoing exists in each of us, whether or not one wishes to specify certain kinds of wrong with the strong term “sin.” And one need not believe in a higher power in order to know that a world without redemption is a sorry place. Yet here we are. The elite view in the United States is that old-time religion, with its belief in sin and redemption, is very, very bad—whereas an intersectional pile of very, very new orthodoxies must be endorsed and re-endorsed.
These new orthodoxies appear to hold that we should “ban the box” for some, while others we should destroy without mercy. “Redemption” is therefore absurd, or a dirty word: There are those who don’t need it, and those who don’t deserve it. This view is odd, to say the least. And it is shortsighted. For the hour will inexorably come when those who destroy others will become targets themselves, perhaps for an actual sin, perhaps for a manufactured one. When this happens, the destroyers are likely to experience a secular come-to-Jesus moment and suddenly find the possibility of redemption attractive. People of bad faith will wish to be viewed as people of good faith.
We tend not to think of “faith,” a word English has borrowed from Latin fides via French, as having much in common with “good faith”: Bona fides is a term more common in law and commerce than in church, and there are many people of good faith who are not also people of faith. (Vice versa, too—though perhaps a person of faith who is not a person of good faith should not in fact be called a person of faith?) I am not a proselytizer: I have no wish to persuade men and women of good faith to embrace faith. Still, I have a story to tell. It is a banal story, a cliché, as old as the hills. But old stories persist because they are retold.
A little more than a year ago, in July 2020, I wrote a controversial article that led to a massive brouhaha, with numerous people—including dozens I had long imagined were friends—calling for me to be disciplined, perhaps fired, for expressing views about race that few would have found contentious just a year or two before. I was responding to an open letter from several hundred members of the Princeton faculty to the university president and administration. I questioned the wisdom of some of my colleagues’ demands, including their call for a committee to review faculty research for racist content (with what counts as racist to be determined by the committee itself). I stand by every word, and in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal later that month I said, “I wrote in good faith.”
Today I write also in faith. I grew up with no faith, no creed, the child of a nominally Lutheran mother and a nominally Jewish father, for neither of whom religion is of any interest. I didn’t regret not going to church or synagogue. I knew the Bible—I would later discover that I knew it in some ways better than the religious people I met—but I knew it as literature and history and culture, not as religion. Only when I moved to England at twenty-two did I begin to attend services regularly, usually at my Oxford college, Christ Church, and this I did not for the sake of the Kingdom but for the power and the glory of the music that makes an Anglican rite one of life’s transcendent experiences. My return to the United States marked the end of that habit, though on visiting England in years to come I would sometimes be free at the right hour and go to Evensong. Doing so always left me fulfilled—musically, for sure, but looking back now I can say spiritually as well, though at the time I did not recognize it.
In 1998, five years after leaving Oxford, I landed a job at Princeton University. Successful as a teacher, researcher, and administrator, I rose through the ranks, earning tenure in 2006 and ultimately being appointed to an endowed professorship. Early in my career, however, I made a grave mistake, by which I mean something beyond the bounds of “merely” bad behavior, something sinful: I had a relationship with a student whom I was at the same time teaching. It was a consensual relationship between adults; it took place at a time when Princeton’s rules permitted students and faculty to engage in sexual contact, provided there was no pedagogical or supervisory conflict; and there was no Title IX violation. Still, it was a sin.
It is a sin I lived with every day. It ate away at me. But I lived with it alone. Alone, that is, until weeks after the #MeToo movement took off in late 2017, when an anonymous complainant—not the woman herself—informed Princeton about the more-than-a-decade-old affair. The result was an internal investigation, which culminated in a one-year suspension without pay.
Even before I knew that my life was about to change, I had begun reading theology and occasionally attending church (in that order—once a bookish academic, always a bookish academic). The fact is that I was sad, I was making a mess of my personal life, and I needed help.
Then I learned of the investigation, learned that I would likely be suspended, and found myself in need of help on an entirely different level. I was on sabbatical in London at the time, and my future mother-in-law—I had only just begun dating her daughter, a former (yes, former) student of mine who was now at Cambridge—gave me the following firm instruction: Get myself to the Temple Church, whose Master (senior cleric), the Rev. Robin Griffith-Jones, she had heard preach a few years earlier in New York.
Within walking distance of where I was living, the Temple Church is a glorious structure, a so-called round church built by the Knights Templar and consecrated in 1185. As it happens, the church is glorious in other ways as well. The first time I attended a service—Choral Mattins—was on the Sunday after the sky had fallen. I was there alone, and I was afraid. I had no idea what to expect, no idea whether I would be welcome. But the Master and the Reader (the other cleric), the Rev. Mark Hatcher, greeted me warmly at the door. The rite was just as I like it, traditional; the sermon was just as I like it, thoughtfully based on the readings; and the choir of men and boys, under the direction of Roger Sayer, was exquisite. I cried.
The following Sunday, my then girlfriend, now wife, accompanied me. The two of us became regulars in the months that followed. Over the next two years, before COVID took the world away, she and I went to the Temple Church nearly every Sunday when we were together in London, to which I would fly as often as I could in order to meet her. The Temple Church became our refuge for prayer, song, and hope. When it came time for me to propose to her, I got down on one knee in the church one bright Sunday in December after a Choral Communion service—with the prior permission of the Master and the Reader, to whom she and I will forever be grateful for so much, including for merrily endorsing my plan.
Back in the United States, during lockdown, things became harder. The church my wife and I attend, and where we were married in July, held almost no in-person services between early March 2020 and late May 2021. It proved remarkably difficult to get anyone to baptize me, though this finally happened in June, at a beautiful service at which my now grandmother-in-law became my godmother and the priest reminded me, and the others present, that there are far more important things in life than winning approval from Princeton’s—or any—elite.
For by that time the vitriol directed against me was staggering. As I would later learn, after the publication of my original piece in July 2020, two reporters at the main student newspaper spent seven months digging into my private life. Surmising that I had been suspended, they published an article about me in the first week of February that “threw away basic journalistic standards” (in the words of Princetonians for Free Speech) in its reliance on hearsay, innuendo, and hostile anonymous sources. The result was predictable. Large numbers of students and colleagues, at Princeton and elsewhere, took to print and Twitter to renew their calls for me to be fired. The paper continued throughout the semester to publish hit jobs. My employer, despite initially indicating that it would observe its standard practice of not commenting on personnel matters, pressed me to put out a brief, university-approved public statement, indicating that it would do so if I didn’t. The message to my colleagues was clear: Don’t dare to challenge campus orthodoxy.
The hideousness shows no signs of abating, though thanks to the Academic Freedom Alliance and many individuals around the world who have reached out to me, I have this year gained more, and better, friends than I lost. Perhaps someday I will have more to say about this. For now: Though my faith in academia, which had been waning for years, is now largely gone, my faith in the power of God’s mysterious ways is ascendant.
Because religion is still new to me, and because I grew up with the New York Times, which in the guise of news now instructs those aptly dubbed by John McWhorter “The Elect” to despise religion, I find it remarkable—though I shouldn’t—that many of the people who have worked so hard to keep me going are religious. Not all, to be sure. One is aggressive about his atheism, which is just fine with me. But it is undeniable that I owe my sanity largely to a couple dozen churchgoing Christians and synagogue-attending Jews: people who understand sin, redemption, and faith, both in theory and in practice.
I have been inspired by religion. But let me say something direct. It is not easy to bare one’s sins to a distinguished conservative Catholic colleague, or to a member of Opus Dei, or to one of the most famous Jews in the world, or to a phalanx of Episcopalians who supported you a year ago but must now be wondering whether they were wrong to do so. It is not easy to know that your upstanding students, some of them associated with Chabad or the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, are reading horrible things about you on social media. It is not easy to write a confessional piece that will be read by God knows how many of your friends and God knows how many of your enemies. It is not easy to know that your greatest sin, now publicly revealed, will forever be part of what defines you, and that it will likely overshadow all the many things you did that are meet and right.
Of course, faith isn’t easy. Nor should it ever be.
Joshua T. Katz is Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and professor of classics at Princeton University.