2012 Remarks at Morning Prayers

Memorial Church, Cambridge, Mass.

Each fall since I was named president – and this is the sixth – I have spoken at the outset of the year at Morning Prayers.  As I recall, almost every one of those days has been clear and crystalline – filled with light just beginning to slant with the promise of fall.  And that is what fall has always meant to me – new pencils, new notebooks, new classes, new syllabi filled with menus describing feasts of learning ahead, new teachers, new students, the lure of new knowledge, new understanding.  That rhythm of new beginnings, with its implicit assurance of annually and infinitely renewed wonder, is, I am sure, one reason I never left universities – making them not just a launching pad but my life.  And here we are once more.  Today – in the words Seamus Heaney wrote of Harvard’s 350th anniversary and repeated for us at Commencement last May at Harvard’s 375th – today we “Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.”

But today we begin in a special way – not just in another academic year.  Today we begin with Jonathan Walton, a new leader for Memorial Church, a new Pusey Minister and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.  The world is a different place, and Harvard is a different institution from the one that welcomed Peter Gomes to this post in 1974.  Four decades ago, widespread scholarly and popular opinion anticipated the waning or even the disappearance of religion as modernity advanced across the globe.  And yet just the opposite has occurred.

These brief remarks are not the time to explore the causes or implications of this phenomenon. But they can offer the occasion for a few observations about how we, as a secular university, dedicated to the power of reason and rational inquiry, might think about what we have to learn from a new Pusey Minister.

Centrally placed on Jonathan Walton’s website – and I suspect central to Jonathan Walton’s life – is a quotation from the great educator and Civil Rights leader Benjamin Elijah Mays.  “The love of God and the love of humanity are indeed one love.”  Mays unites the ineffable with the immediate; the self is suspended between the infinite and the community of humankind, impelled to recognize and serve both.  Many here and elsewhere might not use the word God, but all of us know that our best moments come when we reach beyond the present – when we stretch beyond the immediate and instrumental.  And beyond all our very talented and dedicated selves, when we ask about our connections both to larger purposes and to human communities that can give our work a meaning we can never find alone. “The love of God and the love of humanity are indeed one love.” Mays asks us to look up and to look across.  Universities urge us to do the same: Up to explore mysteries, to ask questions without answers, to think not just about tomorrow but about generations and ages hence, to recognize the humility of not knowing as the beginning of wisdom.  And across – to be part of this extraordinary community in which we are all teachers and learners, and connect the work of that community to the wider world in which knowledge can serve as such a powerful force for human betterment.

May Jonathan inspire us and aid us to look up and look across – to reach beyond our individual talents, ambitions and achievements – to be at once wondering and humble in face of mystery – and open and generous in a community of belonging that will strengthen us all.