Light of the world, big man on campus

For two decades, a course about Jesus' moral example drew hundreds of Harvard students

After Tom Wolfe's depressing depiction of college students as moral idiots, it's refreshing to hear a counter testimony from someone who's spent the past 40 years on a university campus. When Harvey Cox joined the Harvard faculty in 1965, the nation's most prestigious college had long since abandoned its Puritan roots in favor of the secular study of arts and sciences. But in the 1980s, the faculty felt troubled by the sense that they were giving students "virtually no preparation for how to apply their education in a morally responsible manner." In a move both valiant and inadequate, they decided that every student should take at least one course on moral reasoning. And so Cox was asked to teach his first undergraduate class, a study of "the moral example and teachings of Jesus."

He had deep misgivings, but he agreed, and soon 800 students were signing up each year. The course remained in the curriculum for almost two decades.

For us, "When Jesus Came to Harvard" is a rare chance to sample the wisdom and charm of one of the country's great teachers addressing one of the world's richest subjects - at a bargain price ($26 instead of $36,000, with no questions about your SAT scores).

It's also reassuring to read that, contrary to Mr. Wolfe's claims, today's college students are not speeding to hell in a handbasket. "They were scarcely an immoral lot," Cox writes. "They were bright, talkative, hard-working, and extremely intent on 'doing the right thing.' " But in weekly discussions, he also discovered that they were morally inarticulate and most anxious about appearing judgmental. "They were what I would call benevolent but uncomfortable relativists." By tackling subjects as near as plagiarism and as remote as female genital mutilation, he challenged them to study their reactions and the life of Jesus to develop an ethical process for moral decisions.

At first, the students are frustrated. Hoping to find out, "What would Jesus do?" they discover instead that "as a guide to thinking through today's issues, Jesus seemed somehow unavailable." What guidelines would Jesus advise for stem-cell research? Reforming Social Security? Pursuing nuclear power? Even in more pedestrian matters, the 1st-century Nazarene seemed remote: How could they take no thought for the morrow and study for exams? "Jesus never had to worry about a 15-year-old son he suspected might be taking drugs... or agonize over whether to place his failing mother Mary in a retirement community, or consent to disconnecting his father Joseph's life-support system."

Cox's response to their frustration is the heart of his thesis: Jesus was a rabbi. He didn't tell people what to do. Instead, in the time-honored rabbinical tradition, he asked provocative questions and told captivating stories to stir the moral imagination. He wanted to "jog the slumbering moral consciousness" of his followers "to envision alternative possibilities, and to see beyond what sometimes appears to be an impasse." So Cox keeps drawing his students away from sweet aphorisms stitched on pillows and into the tough, irresolvable passages of the Gospels.

He moves through stories by and about Jesus, from the Nativity to the Resurrection, selecting significant events and parables. Sometimes, he explicates the ancient texts; other times the Scriptures are just a spark for the exploration of some modern quandary. He re-creates his students' small group discussions or leaves them behind to tell us about his own childhood. The Annunciation inspires a discussion of students selling their embryos to wealthy couples who can't conceive. The Sermon on the Mount leads to a searching consideration of money. One chapter is a fiery denunciation of popular eschatology and anti-Semitism in the "Left Behind" series (41 million copies in print). The Crucifixion leads the class to debate the uses of torture.

Cox's approach is suggestive, rather than exhaustive. In fact, he's often breezy, as though he just wants to give us a few suggestions for further exploration. This is frequently as frustrating as it is tantalizing. His discussion of the trial of Jesus, which involved a reenactment in the classroom with Alan Dershowitz as counsel for the defense, is particularly cursory. And unfortunately, his presumption that Jesus was God is never tested against countervailing passages in the Gospels, testimonies of some early Christians, or other contemporary Christian traditions.

One of the best chapters, though, is called "Why the Crowds Came." It's a profound examination of Jesus' healings. Cox admits that he skipped those Gospel passages for a few years, feeling they were anachronistic at a major research institution and maybe even a little embarrassing with handicapped students in the class.

But one day, he received a call from Dr. Herbert Benson, a heart specialist at the Harvard Medical School who had started - daringly - to study the practice of spiritual healing. Together they read and observed, and Cox felt he had to bring the healings into his class as an integral part of Jesus' message. Interestingly, he discovered that the medical students were, in fact, the most interested in this issue, having considered the limits of medical science far more deeply than their peers.

In his discussion of "the woman with the issue of blood" and Jairus's daughter, Cox notes that Jesus "completely rejected the sickness-as-punishment idea.... He did not scold.... He did not speculate about it.... He recognized that disease was not a legitimate part of the natural order." While others have called these healings "miracles," Cox claims that Jesus "saw them as preliminary hints of a whole new order of things, one that lies beyond human grasping but can be discerned by those with eyes to see and ears to hear."

Clearly, this is a teacher who sees and hears carefully. "When Jesus Came to Harvard" isn't, unfortunately, a transcript of his popular course, but at least it's a chance to sneak into the back row and catch a few snippets of a master at work.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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