Trajectory of Faith

I can’t tilt my head. If I do, information may spill out from the top and onto the floor. The cause of my fullness is the GCA church planting conference which I’m attending in Minnesota this week. From morning till night, I’ve sat through seminars, talked with colleagues, and read books on such topics as missional ministry, gospel and culture, and Christocentric community. In spare moments I’ve enjoyed thumbing through Dick Staub’s new book entitled, The Culturally Savvy Christian. You ought to check it out (by the way, we are having Staub speak at College Church for two days: September 28 and 29).

There are many themes I’d like to highlight from what I’ve learned during this week. Let me present one: the importance of looking prophetically into the future and prayerfully discerning how the gospel intersects with our world. Following is an example from history that demonstrates why a long term perspective is necessary.

While speaking at the 2002 fall convocation, Harvard President Lawrence Summers admitted that “things divine [had] been central neither to my professional nor to my personal life.” He then wondered out loud, “In what ways should Christianity be privileged, and not be privileged, recognizing the [Divinity] School’s traditions, strengths, and need for focus, and also taking into account growing religious pluralism?”1 His obvious, unspoken answer was, “Very few ways, if any at all.”

The founders would have been astonished. They had put Christ’s name on the first seal and published this 1642 account of the school’s history, rationale, and order:2

After God had carried us safe to new England, and wee had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our liveli-hood, rear’d convenient places for Gods worship, and settled the Civill Government: One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust3 . . . Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Iesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17.3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.4

It is a sad but interesting task to trace Harvard’s spiritual decline. Two figures deserve special mention. In 1805, the school abandoned its theological convictions when it appointed Henry Ware, a Unitarian minister, as Hollis Professor of Divinity. A century later, President Charles Eliot had extended contempt for orthodoxy throughout the university.

Of the biblical account of the Garden of Eden, Eliot said, “The conduct attributed to God in that story would be wholly unworthy of any man whose standards of conduct accorded with the average sentiments about right and wrong of civilized people today.”5 Of the University’s doctrinal roots, he opined, “No thinking person believes any longer in total human depravity. Everybody perceives that human society could not exist, and never could have existed unless the vast majority of mankind had been well disposed, affectionate, and trustworthy . . .”6 Eliot embraced the anti-Christian Ralph Waldo Emerson and appointed such non-believers to the faculty as jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, philosophical pragmatist Charles Saunders Peirce, and evolutionist Chauncey Wright.

There are numerous examples from the history of Harvard University worthy of our reflection. Among them is the example of an academic institution that relinquished the living Jesus and his gospel as it went about engaging the world. This same slouching away from orthodoxy has also happened in the church, and will continue to be a danger until the Lord returns. In light of this, I’d like to suggest it’s not enough for us to simply consider the work of the church today, as we’re driven by the tyranny of the urgent. We must also regularly lift our eyes to see the cultural dynamics taking shape around us and carefully evaluate them through the lens of Christ’s kingdom. Not only is this what it means to be a “culturally savvy” Christian, it is also a necessary safeguard for us to maintain Christian faith in the long run. After all, what will it profit the Church if it gains the whole world but loses Christ?


1 Lawrence Summers, “Convocation of the Divinity School of Harvard University 2002,” Harvard University: Office of the President Website, September 8, 2002, http: // speeches/2002/convocation.html
2 Entitled New England’s First Fruits.
3 Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), 432.
4 Ibid., 434.
5 Henry Saunderson, Charles W. Eliot, Puritan Liberal (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928), 174.
6 Ibid., 211.

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