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Is Harvard Still about Veritas?

  • Dr. James Emery White President, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
  • Updated Mar 05, 2007
Is Harvard Still about Veritas?
Recently I spoke on the campus of Harvard University on the question, “Is Harvard Still About Veritas?”  Veritas, as you may know, is Latin for “truth,” and serves as the school’s motto.

It was a provocative title for an address, purposefully selected by the campus Christian groups sponsoring the event to pique the curiosity of the university community.  From the response, it was a well-chosen topic.

I spoke on the pitfalls of postmodern perspectivalism, the importance of truth, the disingenuous nature of the virtue of “tolerance,” and the fallacy of equating parity with pluralism.  Along the way we traversed widely through culture.  We discussed YouTube and AOL, novelist James Frey’s “million little lies” and what was behind Nietzsche’s famed claim that “God is dead.”  We took note of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, and between Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” and Jesus’ staggering claim to be the truth.  We looked at the worldview that allowed Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” as well as Douglas Coupland’s plaintive writing in Life After God. 

The final challenge was clear: It was not about whether Harvard was still about veritas, but whether they were.

Then came the time for questions and answers.    

Without delay, student after student came forward to the microphones, eager to pose their question.  I braced myself for the fiery debate I was sure would follow, but instead of challenge, they wanted to deepen their understanding; instead of argument, they wanted to pursue how such a worldview might factor into moral issues of the day.  They had searching questions about Christianity proper, and how claims to Truth rooted in any faith might play into the wider scope of policy and community.

They were still about veritas.

But not just any veritas – they were about the veritas that was once an integral part of Harvard’s life. In its original context, the veritas of Harvard’s motto was not merely an abstraction, but a truth related to the person and work of Christ. Harvard’s earliest motto was actually Veritas Christo et ecclesiae, or “Truth for Christ and Church.”  Rather than separating faith and reason, Harvard set out to integrate faith and reason.

Now it doesn’t even warrant a single course.

In a report released in October of last year, the university’s Task Force on General Education recommended adding a required course on “Reason and Faith” to the undergraduate core curriculum.  It was promptly dismissed by the faculty. Indeed, in The Harvard Crimson, psychology professor Steven Pinker argued that the persistence of religion is “an American anachronism… in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.” As the Wall Street Journal noted, such a stupendously ignorant claim - ignoring the salience of faith to most of the world’s population – demonstrated the need for just such a course.

In less than two months, the task force eventually announced that it had withdrawn the “Reason and Faith” course proposal, replacing it with a requirement on “what it means to be a human being.” So while Harvard students are still about veritas, Harvard faculty, it would seem, are not.

It should be noted that this new class on a philosophy of humanity will, no doubt, be taught in Emerson Hall, the primary academic building for philosophy.

Emerson Hall has an inscription chiseled on its front façade: 

“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

The irony is exquisite.

James Emery White (Ph.D.) is president and professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Prior to becoming president of Gordon-Conwell, Dr. White was the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. James Emery White is the author of over a dozen books, including such Gold Medallion nominees as Serious Times and A Search for the Spiritual, Christianity Today book-of-the-year award winner Embracing the Mysterious God, as well as The Prayer God Longs For and Rethinking the Church

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