In 1912 George Santayana taught a course at Harvard on Jesus, but no one taught another course on Jesus at Harvard until 1982, a full seventy years, when Harvey Cox did so. Cox was known to me in my college days as a radical “death-of-God” theologian, made provocatively public in his book The Secular City (1965). That was the last book of his I bought (I don’t recall doing any more than dipping into it) until I saw When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today.
I’m not sure how to describe this book or to review it. It is a well-written and, at times, poetic if also chatty and comprehensive “life of Jesus” in that it covers the whole life (birth to resurrection) by sampling representative events and sayings of Jesus. Furthermore, woven into this book are two things: examples of how a given theme or event can provoke moral thinking (he doesn’t systematize at all) and examples of his own life.
I found Cox a pleasing figure, a man whose “faith” in Jesus is that Jesus is his “friend” with whom he has constant conversations. Jesus is, he says, “where he always was, doing what he was always doing: teaching, chatting, eating and drinking without regard to rank” (302).
Cox thinks Jesus has to be understood as a rabbi and has to be set into his Jewish world. And Cox thinks imagination is highly significant for the moral life and this is established in Jesus’ constant use of narrative or story as the preferred method of teaching. “Some people go down in history as great storytellers. Others are the kind about whom people tell stories. Only a few people are both, and Rabbi Jesus was one of them” (32).
When commenting on Jesus’ radical love your enemy saying, Cox shuts down with this: “Why offer a commentary on the Mona Lisa?” (137).
Cox’s reading is amazingly wide — he dips into all the major religious traditions, he knows enough about the The Left Behind books to offer insight (and not all of it critical), he gets both St. Francis and Bonhoeffer into discussions, and he brings all of this to bear on the significance of Jesus for the moral life today. Well, that’s about all I need to say.