Mark D. Roberts

Harvard Ironies 

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts


Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.



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Harvard Ironies: Veritas for Whom? For What?

This Thursday, May 27th, Harvard University holds its commencement.
It’s not called “graduation,” but “commencement,” because the ceremony
is the beginning of life beyond the university. I had to opportunity to
participate in two Harvard commencements, in 1979 as I finished
college, and in 1992 to receive my Ph.D. Yes, that means I did pay some
form of tuition during 18 consecutive
years, from 1975 to 1992. And, yes, it suggests I was a rather slow
student, the Crimson tortoise, not the hare.

Today, and during the next couple of days, I want to share some reflections on my alma mater.
In particular, I will focus on a few curious ironies about Harvard and
my experience there. (I blogged on these six years ago, but it’s time
to refresh my thoughts.)

Harvard-seal-3.jpgDuring my years at Harvard, the university seal was everywhere: on
library chairs and notebooks, on sweatshirts and university signs,
wherever I turned, there was VE-RI-TAS, following my every move like
the eye of God (or, perhaps, Lord Sauron). Harvard was all about veritas, Latin for “truth.” (It’s popularly pronounced “VER-ee-tas,” except by classics majors, who us the more proper “WER-ee-tas.”)

it wasn’t until I was well into my college experience that I learned
the truth about the Harvard seal and the motto emblazoned upon it. Yes,
the motto did contain the word veritas. But on the official official university seal veritas didn’t stand alone. It was joined to three other Latin words: christo et ecclesiae. The whole motto translated into English reads: “Truth . . . for Christ and the church.”

official motto, adopted by the university in 1692, was consistent with
Harvard’s original vision for its educational purpose. Among the “Rules and Precepts” of 1646 was the following:

every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider
well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus
Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in
the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and
Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one
seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov.

say, during the last three centuries, Harvard lost touch with
its original purpose, though the student body continues to include a
healthy number of faithful Christians. The predominant view among many
Harvardians these days, however, would be that truth is relative, and
that there is no certain truth upon which to base one’s life. You’d
find a more robust view of truth among those who teach and study in the
natural sciences. But even among most of those who actually believe
there is Truth to be discovered and studied, the idea
that the pursuit of truth is for the sake of Christ and the church
would considered an curious antique of a pre-modern age. (Photo: The
official university seal from my Ph.D.
diploma. Around the central shield that reads VERITAS, you can barely
see the Latin words CHRISTO ET ECCLESIAE.

Notice that veritas christo et ecclesiae
does not consist only of theological truth. This phrase assumes that
all truth is relevant to Christ and his people, including the truth of
physics, chemistry, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and, well, you
name it. This view of truth denies the oft-made distinction between the
sacred and secular. It sees all of creation, and therefore all of
truth, as a result of God and a reflection of God’s own truthfulness. Veritas christo et ecclesiae encourages people to engage in all academic disciplines for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Though I spent eight years in residence at
Harvard, I still believe that there is such a thing as VERITAS, as
Truth with a capital ‘T.’ Moreover, I even believe that human beings
should pursue such Truth for the sake of Christ and his church. This
pretty much explains why I do what I do as a pastor, a retreat leader, a teacher,
a student of Scripture, and a blogger. In fact, I believe along with the governors of
Harvard in 1646, that Christ is “the only foundation of all sound
knowledge and Learning.” Yes, I may be a bit of an antique. But
sometimes antiques are worth a whole lot more than newfangled
contraptions. When it comes to truth, I think the founding leaders of
my alma mater got it right. Truth, all truth, when rightly understood, is indeed “for
Christ and the church.”


Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.


Harvard Ironies: The Statue of the Three Lies

If you were to visit my alma mater, Harvard University, no doubt
you’d wander about in Harvard Yard. And, if you were like thousands of
other visitors to “The Yard,” you’d end up getting your picture taken
in front of the statue of John Harvard.

at least you’d think you had your picture taken in front of a statue of
John Harvard. After all, the statue has the name “John Harvard”
engraved upon it, along with the information that he founded Harvard
College in 1638. But, as it turns out, none of these “facts” is true.
That’s why students in the know refer to this monument to Mr. Harvard
as “The Statue of the Three Lies.” (Photo: The statue of John Harvard
in the winter, with a couple of crazy freshman standing in front of it.
Yes, I am one of those who thought it would be fun to brave 28 degree
temperatures to take a photo in front of the statue. My roommate Henry
is on the right.)

What are the lies?

1. The
bronze man is not John Harvard, who left no visual representations of
himself, but rather an unnamed student who sat for a sculptor in the
1800’s, two centuries after Mr. Harvard died. 

2. John Harvard
did not found a college at all. Rather, when he died in 1638, he left a
small amount of money and his library of 320 books in his will to be
used for the training of young men for Christian ministry.

The college (not called Harvard at this time, of course), was founded
by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1636. It was named “Harvard
College” in 1638 (or 1639) in honor of John Harvard’s benefaction.

the statue supposedly of John Harvard who founded Harvard College in
1638 is actually a statue of an unknown Harvard student who represents
the real John Harvard, who did not actually found a college in 1638,
but who died in 1638, leaving money for a school that had been founded
two years earlier. Rev. Harvard, who was known to be a passionate
preacher, intended his gift to support the training of Christian
ministers. (For more info on John Harvard, see this article.)

the current religious state of Harvard University – not exactly a
paragon of Christian faith – there’s much irony here. But I want to
focus for a moment on the deceptions of this statue. Surely they aren’t
the sorts of lies that ruin lives or nations. Yet I find this statue to
be a symbol for the reality of our culture. Whether we recognize it or
not, we’re swimming in a sea of deceptions. Even the most prominent
image of the university committed to Veritas (truth) is touched by

I don’t want simply to complain about the
deceitfulness of our world today. This gets tiresome. I do want to
suggest to things that you and I can do to make a difference, albeit a
small one. First, we can be steadfast in seeking the truth. Whether
that truth is political, religious, historical, relational, or
whatever, we need to invest our efforts to go beneath the façade and
spin in order to find the truthful bedrock. Second, we can strive in
our own lives to be people who speak and live the truth. I have felt to
strongly about the need for us to be people of truth, in word and in
deed, that I wrote a whole book about this, Dare to Be True.
I’m convinced that, with God’s help, we can live truth-full lives. . .
not perfectly, but with consistency, by God’s grace. Our being people
of truth will make a huge difference in our daily lives and closest
relationships. And it will make a small dent in the larger world in
which we live.

Harvard Ironies: The Irony of All Ironies

Today, thousands of people will descend upon Harvard Yard as the
university celebrates its 359th Commencement (graduation). Half of
Harvard Yard will be transformed into the Tercentenary Theatre as
thousands of students “commence” their new lives as Harvard graduations.

of the borders of the Tercentenary Theatre is Emerson Hall. In ordinary
life, it houses the university’s philosophy department. In fact, I
spent countless hours there as an undergraduate with a concentration
(major) in philosophy. But, as it turns out, Emerson Hall is much more
than a building for academic pursuits. It’s a landmark on the Harvard
campus, and one that embodies one of the most striking ironies Harvard
has to offer.

Emerson Hall rose to fame because of it’s role in one of the most popular movies in 1970. The tear-jerking classic, Love Story,
starred Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett IV and Ali McGraw as Jennifer
Cavilleri, both of whom were students at Harvard. (Technically,
Jennifer was a student at Radcliffe College.) This was the movie that
popularized the (un)forgettably profound line, “Love means never having
to say you’re sorry.” Parts of Love Story were filmed on the
Harvard campus. One key building, called Barrett Hall in the movie, was
in fact Emerson Hall, the haunts of the Harvard philosophy department.

As an undergraduate concentrating in philosophy, I was
required to take a few courses in the history of philosophy. But, for
the most part, my fellow students and I studied contemporary
philosophy, including logic and philosophy of language. In these
classes, I was taught that truth was merely a human construct, and that
God was basically irrelevant to human thought. One of my professors
actually acknowledge that the existence of God was 50% probable. I
expect the Lord was glad to hear that! The philosophy faculty at
Harvard apparently did not uphold the vision of the Harvard seal: veritas christo et ecclesiae, “Truth for Christ and the church.”

fact that the great Harvard philosophers inhabited Emerson Hall struck
me as extraordinarily ironic, but not only because this building had
co-starred in Love Story. Rather, the irony of ironies had to
do with what was engraved in stone on the outside of Emerson Hall.
There, in giant letters, was a portion of Psalm 8: “WHAT IS MAN THAT

This line, a portion of Psalm 8:4,
calls us to humility before the wonders of the Creator God. It reminds
us of our smallness and weakness when compared with the majesty and
might of the Lord. Yet, inside the hallowed walls of Emerson Hall, some
of the finest minds of the 20th century reversed the order. God was
neglected or denied to exist by the greatness and power of contemporary

Had Emerson Hall been built in the 1970’s (and in
the years since), it might well have been inscribed with “WHAT IS GOD
MINDFUL OF.” My guess is that the statement of the ancient Greek
philosopher Protragoras would have prevailed: “MAN IS THE MEASURE OF
ALL THINGS.” (Of course the use of “man” as a generic would never be
tolerated today! So it would have to be the considerably less elegant
quotation had been suggested for the inscription, but Harvard President
C.W. Eliot chose the Psalm text instead.)

It’s almost too easy
to laugh at the irony of Emerson Hall with its erudite atheist
inhabitants. But before I chuckle too hard, I ought to examine my own
life. Do I live as if it’s a wonder that God is mindful of me? Or do I
live as if I were the measure of all things? Though I believe in God,
am I living humbly before God today – really? Moreover, am I living as
if I had relationship with the all-powerful Creator of the universe? Do
my prayers reflect this sort of faith?

Psalm 8 concludes with a
double punch line. On the one hand, it reveals that we have been made
“a little lower than God” and been given dominion over God’s creation
(8:5-8). So, though humbled by God’s greatness, we nevertheless have
been honored by him as his royal stewards. On the other hand, the Psalm
concludes as it began, with praise of God’s greatness: “O LORD, our
Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (8:9). Here is
a verse that ought to be engraved upon our minds and hearts!


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