Archive for March 1st, 2011
Peter J. Gomes, the minister of Memorial Church at Harvard University and a professor at the School of Divinity, died yesterday at the age of 68. Much to my regret, I never met the Rev. Gomes, but I often went to see him preach, less out of any particular religious conviction than out of admiration for a difficult job brilliantly done. It wasn’t easy to persuade the students of a generally nonreligious campus that religion, and particularly Christianity, deserved to play a central role in their undergraduate lives, but Gomes managed to pull it off, at least for me, with an inimitable combination of wit, common sense, fierce intelligence, and oratorical splendor.
Gomes was, by necessity, an intellectual preacher, and his message on most Sundays was aimed at the head, rather than the heart. Yet there’s no way to measure how deeply he influenced the spiritual life of the university. In the days and weeks after September 11, when attendance swelled at Memorial Church, he reassured the nonhabitual churchgoers in the congregation that we were exactly where we needed to be—which was how it really felt. These days, his tolerance, good sense, engagement with ideas, and sense of humor seem more urgently needed than ever. In his absence, his books still remain, as well as a generation’s memories of him in the pulpit, but I don’t think anyone can ever truly take his place.
The question should not be “What would Jesus do?” but rather, more dangerously, “What would Jesus have me do?” The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semidivine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live in the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.