Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians

Article by   September 2007

Most collections disappoint; this one does not. Open Finding God at Harvard anywhere and you will find intelligence, inspiration, challenge, and--preeminently--Christ proclaimed. The contributors all have, of course, some connection to Harvard: students, alumni, professors, and guest speakers. It is soon evident that all have had a deeply transformative encounter with Jesus Christ and have found Him to be the veritas (truth) that under girds their lives and professions, and their view of human history and the whole of creation. All are passionate about Jesus and therefore about other people and the created order. All view their callings--from student to astrophysicist to senator--as channels for praise and service.

The pieces in this collection are a combination of personal testimony, apology (a defense of the Gospel), and windows into varied life experiences, areas of learning, and (to a lesser extent) the educational enterprise at Harvard. From many, the reader may learn something about the author's vocation, especially the turn of mind and kind of issues faced by persons in that calling. While each piece is a treasure, this is not a book that must be read entirely to make sense or be of great benefit. The ten chapter headings give a loose guide to the area of life in which authors have made a significant contribution. Some of the categories could harbor any number of perspectives, like Chapter 1: "Questions and Turnings"; Chapter 2: "A Crisis for Meaning, and the Need for Change"; or Chapter 10: "Conclusion: Veritas, Hope for the Twenty-First Century." Though the headings are broad, these chapters contain some of the best writing and most famous authors: the courageous Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Harvard psychiatrist, Roberts Coles, and servant to the poor, Mother Teresa, whose love for Christ has touched the whole world and inspired our generation like few others.

The contributing authors come from an amazing range of careers, backgrounds, and life experiences. Some, like those just named, will be easily recognized by everyone. Like the more famous (and most are well known in their specialty and often well beyond), all of the contributors have put their faith to the test in real life circumstances and found Jesus not only adequate but central to their life's mission and challenge: Elizabeth Dole in the U.S. Senate; Charles Malik in the United Nations; Peter Clark in a garbage dump in San Salvador; and Brent Foster, an undergraduate who wrote his contribution while dying of bone cancer. As Foster says so credibly: "Without God, life is meaningless and death even more so. . . . Christ offers order over chaos, purpose over futility, hope over despair, and life over death" (132).

Editor Kelly Monroe Kullberg has put together a remarkably diverse group of writers. Though denominationalism is appropriately in the background, a wide range is referenced in the personal elements of many essays and is sometimes discernable in the biographical information, helpfully updated in the Postscript. The cultural mix features persons from Albania/Macedonia/India, Lebanon, Malaysia, Gambia, Russia, and China (one generation removed, plus one with Chinese heritage), as well as the States. Lamin Sanneh converted to Christianity from Islam and Krister Sairsingh from Hinduism (an especially good essay). In both, the reader has a good introduction to world religions and a sense of what it costs many converts to follow Christ. Nine of the ten chapters feature writers of both sexes, with an excellent essay on approaching radical feminism at Harvard by a male author, John Rankin, who shows that love and respect can open even that door. These three essays, plus one by Habib Malik (son of Charles) make up Chapter 5, "Pluralism and the Global Gospel."

An unexpected breadth comes from the number of contributors that have gone on short-term missions around the world, including the editor. Some, in addition to Mother Teresa, have devoted their lives to serving the underprivileged, like Ruth Goodwin (now Goodwin-Groen), working in microfinance for women in poverty and Peter Clark, assisting in community development in countries like Afghanistan and Rwanda. The essays by Goodwin and Clark represent, respectively, Chapter 6, "Money, Race, and the Gospel of Mercy," and Chapter 7, "Government and the Gospel of Justice." The latter of these two chapters is also where you will find Senator Elizabeth Dole's excellent essay on "Crisis and Faith," one of the most unstintingly Christ-centered testimonials I have read. She beautifully unfolds her own story around the example of the biblical Esther.

Chapter 3, "Finding Hope, Health, and Life," includes a testimonial by Olympic figure skater, Paul Wylie; one by Harvard Professor Armand Nicholi, whose course on C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud spawned a recent book and PBS documentary. The essay by ophthalmologist Michael Yang (converted from atheism) is followed by Brent Foster's testimony of facing imminent death with faith. The final essay in this chapter, on biblical sexuality, is written from the perspective of a single woman by medical doctor Poh Lian Lim.

The remaining three chapters are very straightforward in announcing their content. Like every essay in the book, these are all worth individual attention, though I won't give much detail here. The pieces in Chapter 4, "The Recovery of Love, Family, and Community," are written with great sensitivity. The essays in Chapter 8, "Science, Technology, and the Earth," are among those pieces that give outsiders to the disciplines a marvelous insight into faith at work in areas where it is too often thought irrelevant. For the most concentrated look into the mindset and experience of Harvard students and faculty (though there is plenty elsewhere in the book, too), look at Chapter 9, "Renewing Education: Light in the Yard."

The enduring relevance of Jesus--and the quality of the writing--is suggested by the fact that all four essays in the concluding Chapter (10) on "Hope for the Twenty-First Century" are written by people who have died: one in the 19th century, three in the 20th. If there is a best, it may be the last by Charles Malik, United States ambassador, president of the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations. His contribution is excerpted from his book The Wonder of Being. It is a rhetorical tour de force which shimmers with a passion for Jesus Christ as the truth essential to all of life. What Malik says is in many ways the point of each essay and of the book: that all fulfillment is to be found in Christ or not at all. "For as Christ is God and therefore absolutely unique, so each one of us, in confronting the otherness of Christ--namely, God himself--becomes absolutely new and unique" (345).

A wonderful way to read this book is devotionally, an essay or two per day, or even a chapter at a time. The book may also be dipped into according to interest or at divergent times. Short and helpful biographical sketches precede each contribution, along with a key quote from the essay. Kullberg has also included thought-provoking quotations at the head of each chapter, drawn from writers as well known as C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot to a little known Incan proverb. These also give a sense of breadth and inclusiveness to the volume.

Perhaps the greatest contribution the book makes is to rekindle or enhance the reader's excitement and joy of being in Christ. It will strengthen your faith and expand your vision for how life in Christ can and should permeate every area of life: government, business, education, engagement with the poor, and more. The essays give witness after witness to the transformative power of Jesus, which begins so clearly in the life of every contributor.

The influence of this book is justly widespread. As editor Kelly Monroe Kullberg explains, during the three-year period of forming this book, the participants decided to bring the book to life in what became the first Veritas Forum at Harvard. Many of the contributors spoke of their faith to Harvard community, inviting questions and engagement from other positions of belief or unbelief. The book has, in turn, been the catalyst for spawning numerous other Veritas Forums (Fora). Kullberg adds her own testimony to those of Finding God at Harvard in her recently published autobiographical account Finding God Beyond Harvard, which is cut from the same mold and will satisfy the reader's inevitable craving for more. It is thoroughly honest about personal struggles and is written in a poetic style, which may be sampled in her introduction, epilogue, and postscript in the volume reviewed here.

A great deal of similarly useful material is available at the Veritas Forum website, www.veritas.org, which features free talks, podcasts, mp3s, and streaming video. It also posts upcoming events at universities around the country. In addition to a growing list of over 75 universities on three continents where Veritas Forums have been held, you can also find information on how to start a Forum on a new campus. The book also features a helpful, though not complete, index.

Finding God at Harvard lives up to the standard expressed in the first two sentences of the Veritas Forum Mission Statement (included in the back of the book): creating opportunities to consider "life's hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life" and seeking "to restore an understanding of the Gospel to promote intellectual, spiritual and communal vitality" (373). If you want to be encouraged, stimulated, and challenged just open the book at any page and start reading.

Edited by Kelly Monroe Kullberg
Review by Wayne Martindale, Professor of English, Wheaton College, Illinois

Downers Grove: IVP, 2007


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