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What would Jesus do at Harvard?

WALKING OUT OF Harvard's Divinity Hall on a recent afternoon, Harvey Cox's mood does not seem affected by the cold, damp weather or the deafening sounds of nearby construction. All the way back to his office, he's happily singing the much-covered reggae song "By the Rivers of Babylon." The lyrics, of course, are not entirely original. They're adapted from Psalm 137, and Cox, one of the country's most prominent theologians, has just used them in his graduate seminar on Jerusalem to demonstrate how the exiling of the Jews from the city in 587 BC echoes today as far as Rastafarian culture. The theme of exile is reiterated as Cox plays to his class the solemn Latin chants from the Maundy Thursday service, in which Catholics commemorate the Last Supper, and has students read responsively from the book of Lamentations, which Jews chant on the holiday Tisha B'Av to mourn the destruction of the Temple. By the end of two hours, a student could be forgiven for wondering if he's studying religion or practicing it.

Indeed, Cox has spent his four-decade-long academic career negotiating such delicate boundaries: between scholarship and political activism, between the commitments of faith and the norms of a secular university, between the rational study of religion and an experiential understanding of it. On that last question, Cox is adamant. "Frankly," he tells me in his office atop the main divinity school building, "I think to teach religion and the ethical significance of religious traditions and pretend that it doesn't have emotional, spiritual, and symbolic elements, is to falsify it. It's simplifying unduly what religious traditions are about.

"Of course, conveying a sense of the experience of religion in a graduate divinity school seminar is one thing. Doing it for a mixed group of undergraduates within a secular liberal-arts curriculum is quite another. But through his course "Jesus and the Moral Life," Cox brought his vision of Christianity to students of all faiths and no faith, and some with no interest in faith -- and the students it seems, couldn't get enough. For 15 years, Cox attempted to teach students how to use the Bible and texts inspired by it in order to wrestle both intellectually and emotionally with problems ranging from poverty and racial injustice to abortion, the allocation of health care, and the termination of life support.

Cox's course -- described in his new book "When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today" (Houghton Mifflin) -- was consistently ranked one of the most popular on campus, often enrolling more than a thousand students a semester. But more than simply helping a generation of Harvard students find a moral path (or fulfill a graduation requirement), "Jesus and the Moral Life" was Cox's attempt to answer some of the most pressing questions facing American society today: How do you talk about religion in a pluralistic society with a strong Christian and a strong secularist tradition? And how can people come together to explore and derive guidance from a religious tradition they might not share?

When Cox was approached in 1981 by some of his fellow professors about teaching a class based on Jesus in the newly founded "moral reasoning" section of Harvard's core curriculum, he balked. "I had my doubts about the idea," he writes in his new book. "I wasn't sure that morality was something one could teach in the classroom." Cox worried that the moral reasoning courses -- charged with teaching students to "discuss significant and recurrent questions of choice and value that arise in human experience" -- might produce students who "could debate moral dilemmas with flair and proficiency but who lacked any moral conviction about them." In the end, though, Cox relented. His became the first Harvard course with the word "Jesus" in the title since George Santayana taught one in the early decades of the 20th century.

Cox was no stranger to the idea that religion could be a powerfully transformative force. Raised in a small Pennsylvania town in the Baptist tradition, which he describes as "very oriented toward the life and teachings of Jesus," Cox graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and then Yale Divinity School. (He was also ordained a Baptist minister in 1956.) In 1962, shortly after receiving his doctorate in the history and philosophy of religion from Harvard, he served for a year as an "ecumenical fraternal worker" in Berlin, traveling almost daily across the divided city to maintain contact between the two sides. Back in the states he was one of the founders of the Boston chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King Jr., a relationship he calls "the single most influential" one in his life.

In 1964, Cox published "The Secular City," which argued that the growing secularization of Western society represented not a threat to religion but an opportunity, freeing divine presence from institutional confines and loosing it on the messy, complex, pluralistic real world. The book became a surprise bestseller -- within a few years it had sold almost a million copies around the world and was translated into 14 languages -- and provoked heated debate in theological circles and beyond. But perhaps its most fateful ripples were felt in Latin America, where a Spanish translation was debated and built upon by the exponents of the nascent "liberation theology" movement.

Liberation theology, which originated among Catholic theologians in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, held that Christians should take their lead not from church doctrine or hierarchy but from the example of Jesus, especially with respect to his identification with the poor and outcast. God, according to a famous statement issued by the conference of Latin American bishops in 1968, had a "preferential option for the poor," and it was the duty of clergy to work not just for the salvation of the poor but for the betterment of their life on earth through political and economic justice movements. (In practice, this sometimes meant support for Marxist revolutionaries, which in part led Pope John Paul II to later rebuke the advocates of liberation theology.)

Cox does not claim credit for liberation theology or any of the other liberal lay movements that have swept the globe in the past four decades. Yet as he wrote in 1990, "I like to think that `The Secular City' helped create the climate that forced church leaders and theologians to come down from their balconies and out of their studies and talk seriously with the ordinary people who constitute 99 percent of the churches of the world.

"The students in "Jesus and the Moral Life" did not read much liberation theology per se, but the syllabus reflected Cox's longtime focus on Jesus as a living force that moves in an ever-changing world. (Not that the course was apolitical: "As a Samaritan, you are asked to join a newly organized Judeo-Samaritan Liberation Front to seek to overthrow . . . Roman rule over Palestine," began one essay question.) Among the central ideas of "Jesus and the Moral Life" are that Jesus was a storyteller, and that the great power of his moral lessons comes at least in part from the way in which they are told.

Cox is hardly the type to wear one of those "WWJD" bracelets that were popular a few years ago. And he worries that people who ask "What Would Jesus Do?" sometimes come up with "downright silly" answers. (He's particularly critical of fundamentalists who try to simply translate the words of the New Testament into literal lessons for modern life.) But he doesn't think the question itself is absurd. To respond today, though, he writes, "requires a huge step beyond the parameters of most biblical scholarship and ethical theory. It requires a leap into situations Jesus never faced: a leap of imagination. . . ."

According to former students contacted through an alumni list-serv, Cox's class served two main purposes beyond a chance to fulfill the moral-reasoning requirement. For believing Christians, the class demanded that they approach their faith in a more critical and intellectual way. And for curious non-Christians, it gave them a way to approach the subject of Jesus and Christianity without having to attend a religious service or a church-sponsored class.

Some enrolled in the course for other than purely educational reasons. Matthew Florence, who grew up in what he describes as a "Christian fundamentalist home" in rural Tennessee, says he was encouraged to enroll his sophomore year by other members of the Harvard Christian Fellowship, an evangelical student group. "It was part of our effort to counteract the course's supposed liberal biases," he explained in a recent interview. (Cox says he was unaware of this campaign and the other students seemed mostly oblivious to their professor's reputation outside the classroom.)

But in Florence's case, the plan backfired. Florence, who graduated in 1989 and is now living in the Bay Area doing nonprofit work with AIDS patients, remembers that before he took the class, "I thought the written word of God was infallible." It was in Cox's lectures that he first learned that the Gospels give varying accounts of the same events, and that some of them were written decades after Jesus lived. Florence eventually broke with the HCF and helped to form the Seymour Society, a discussion and social service group headed by Rev. Eugene Rivers (founder of Boston's Ten Point Coalition), that, according to Florence, "combined a very liberal social-justice theology with conservative moral theology."

Cox emphasizes that he did not want to teach the class "like an expos." If anything, he wanted to give believers a chance to broaden and deepen their faith. "I find it pathetic that a lot of people have sophisticated notions about poetic theory or biology, but when they talk about religion they are still in 7th-grade Sunday school class," he says. But this wasn't an easy task. "How do you help students move beyond an adolescent conception of their own tradition without feeling they have to kick it?" he asks.

Will Meyerhofer, who is Jewish, says that he opted for taking "Jesus and the Moral Life" because he thought it would be untaxing compared with the other moral-reasoning course offered that semester, on German philosophy. (More than one student I interviewed cited the course's nickname, "Jesus and the Easy Life.") Meyerhofer, who graduated in 1989 and is now a psychotherapist in New York, also says he was curious about the New Testament. "I wanted to know what the excitement was about," he says. "This class gave me a sneaky excuse to read it." Meyerhofer remembers being particularly struck to learn that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder. "I remember being a little stunned. These were Jews, this was a Jewish thing."

To Cox, the Jewishness of Jesus is absolutely central. "Some people interpret Christianity as being a sharp break from the Jewish heritage," says Cox. "This is not the way I approach it. The more we study late Judaism and early Christianity and the more things we discover like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic texts, [the more it] underlines the continuity." Indeed, his own household exemplifies that continuity. His wife, who teaches Russian history at Wellesley, is Jewish, and they are raising a Jewish child, something he describes in his 2001 book "Common Prayers."

"Personally," Cox says, "my going to Torah studies at synagogue or participating in Yom Kippur or a Sabbath meal helps me at a deep emotional and spiritual level to appreciate Jesus more."

Cox's former students might be surprised by how he's changed since they took the course. He's still got the look of the "kindly priest" that Meyerhofer remembers. But he doesn't seem the firebrand he once was. For one thing, the religious and political landscape around him has changed. The countries where Cox was fighting for political change, he acknowledges, are now democracies in one form or another. And the central message of liberation theology -- that God has a preferential option for the poor -- Cox says, has become mainstream, even in evangelical circles. Even his liturgical tastes -- he's been attending an Episcopal church rather than his usual Baptist one -- are also getting more conservative. He acknowledges feeling comfortable with more formal liturgies and even the pronounced presence of a church hierarchy.

While he did take the bullhorn in the recent student-led living-wage campaign at Harvard, Cox no longer thinks students should become activists during college. Over the course of teaching "Jesus and the Moral Life," Cox came to believe that "a lot of the important battles are going on in the battle of ideas," he says. "The fact is that you are going to have other opportunities to join the picket line, but you're not going to have quite the leisure and the stimulation to think systematically about these issues."

But after an election season marked by sharp polarization over "moral values" and the role of religion in politics, Cox's activism may be called for once again. "The evangelical conservatives have a point," he says. "There is something missing in the public discourse about policies and values and moral choices and so on. . .." But he's wary of any approach that boils morality down to "hot-button issues, like abortion or stem cell research, which obscure the larger issues of war and peace and poverty" that Jesus addressed. Cox worries, though, that progressives "haven't thoughtfully related their position on issues like poverty to a larger moral tradition, possibly a religiously informed moral tradition, in a way that's plausible to people."

Cox says that if he were to offer "Jesus and the Moral Life" today, he would still teach it the same way. But he does think students' reactions would be different. For example, if he were to invite students to join in with a recording of Handel's `Hallelujah Chorus,' as he once did, he wouldn't be surprised if some complained. Today, he says, "nobody quite knows where the line of separation between church and state or education and indoctrination is."

Harvey Cox will speak at an event sponsored by the Harvard Book Store at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Dec. 6, at 6:30 p.m. For more info: 617-661-1515.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of "God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America," to be published by St. Martin's Press in January.

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